The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 and 2012 curtailed mandatory life sentences for juveniles, accepting the argument that children are less culpable than adults and usually deserve a chance at redemption. The New York Times says most states have taken half measures at best to carry out the rulings, which could affect more than 2,000 current inmates and countless more in years to come. “States are going through the motions of compliance,” said Cara Drinan of the Catholic University of America law school, “but in an anemic or hyper-technical way that flouts the spirit of the decisions.”
Lawsuits before Florida's highest court are among many across the U.S. seeking more robust changes in juvenile justice. One Florida suit accuses the state of skirting the ban on life without parole in nonhomicide cases by issuing sentences so harsh that they amount to the same thing. A case argued last week before the Illinois Supreme Court seeks new sentencing hearings for inmates with automatic life terms for murder before 2012, a retroactive application that several states have resisted. Pennsylvania has the most inmates serving automatic life sentences for murders committed as juveniles: more than 450. In October, the state Supreme Court found that one U.S. high court ruling did not apply to prior murder convictions, creating what critics called an “appallingly unjust situation” with radically different punishments depending on the timing of the trial.