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Supreme Court hears arguments on life sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide

The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Tuesday in the cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs [transcripts; JURIST report] on whether the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a 14-year-old child convicted of homicide violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment [text] prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. The court has also been asked to decide whether such a sentence violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when it is imposed upon a 14-year-old as a result of a mandatory sentencing scheme that categorically precludes consideration of the offender's young age or any other mitigating circumstances. In Jackson, the court will also address whether a life sentence violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when it is imposed upon a 14-year-old who did not personally kill the homicide victim, but was convicted on accessory liability without intent to kill. Petitioners Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson were represented by the same attorney, who argued for the court to extend its holding in Graham v. Florida [JURIST report] where the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibited the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the juvenile's commission of a non-homicide offense. His basic argument was that "to equate the failings of a child and an adult would be cruel." In Jackson he argued, "the differences between children and adults, these internal attributes, if you will, these deficits in judgment are not crime specific."

One of the concerns advanced by the justices regarded the age limit upon which to base a ban against mandatory life sentences. In Miller, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, "What's the distinction between 14 and 15? ... How are we to know where to draw those lines?" Later, Miller's attorney said, "I would hold that children are categorically prohibited from being subjected to [life] sentences," to which Justice Alito questioned, "what's the definition of a child for that purpose?" Miller's attorney called for 18 to be the minimum age needed to impose a life sentence, and pointed out that most of the jurisdictions that have considered the issue in a legislative context have adopted an age 18 minimum for mandatory life sentences. He offered that those jurisdictions that permitted the imposition of mandatory life-sentences did so through a regime that transferred juveniles to the adult criminal justice system where they are exposed to mandatory life sentences, not because of the express will of the people or their legislators to impose mandatory life sentences on juvenile offenders. He indicated that roughly 80 percent of life sentences imposed on juveniles were a result of mandatory sentencing regimes. In Jackson the attorney argued that Jackson had no intent to kill, and thus, that lower level of culpability could be used as a line by which to bar juvenile mandatory life sentences.

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