In its term beginning next month, the Supreme Court will consider whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to imprison a minor until he or she dies when the crime does not involve murder, reports the Los Angeles Times. Amnesty International says the U.S. is the only country “that does not comply with the norm against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles.” Nearly all of the estimated 2,500 U.S. prisoners serving life terms for juvenile crimes, the group said, were guilty either of murder or of participating in a crime that led to a homicide. Some 109 inmates are serving life sentences for other crimes committed when they were younger than 18.
The question, before the court in November, will be an early test of whether Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, will align herself with the court’s tough-on-crime conservatives or join with its liberals to strike down prison policies perceived as going too far. Many lawyers and prosecutors said that until the Supreme Court agreed this year to take up the issue, they were unaware of juveniles receiving such sentences. Florida leads the nation in sending teenagers to prison for life with no possible parole for crimes such as burglary, assault or rape. It has at least 77 such inmates. California and six other states also have at least one. “This is a hidden group. They don’t get a lot of attention because there was no homicide,” said Paolo Annino, a law professor at Florida State University who has studied such prisoners. In defense of its life-in-prison policy, Florida’s lawyers have pointed to several deadly attacks on European visitors carried out by young criminals.