Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles left open the possibility that such sentences could still be imposed, but the high court expects such a sentence to be uncommon from here on, says Lyle Denniston on ScotusBlog. The decision, written by the newest Justice, Elena Kagan, continues the trend that started a quarter-century ago of demanding that criminal punishment for children generally must be different — and less harsh — than for adults.
The premise behind that trend is that children are not adults, but rather are unformed people with the capacity to change, and to grow beyond being a thoroughly corrupted individual beyond redemption. In earlier rulings, the Court had flatly barred the death penalty for minors who commit murder and had flatly barred life without parole for minors who commit a crime that does not involve the death of the victim (so-called non-homicide crimes). In the new combined cases from Alabama and Arkansas, youths convicted of murders when they were 14 years old asked the Court to extend such a flat ban to life without parole when the victim is murdered. As an alternative, the two youths asked the Court at least to rule out entirely any such sentence if the youth were only 14 when the crime occurred. The Court chose not to adopt either approach. Instead, it struck out any requirement that life without parole be the mandatory penalty for murder by a minor.