The Supreme Court recently heard arguments surrounding two new cases up for review. Both involved the question of just how severe a penalty imposed on a juvenile offender must be in order to declared unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.
The first case, Miller v. Alabama, involved a 14-year-old in Alabama who beat an older man to death and subsequently burned his house down. Evan Miller, the teen, and a friend stole a collection of baseball cards and $300 from a neighbor. They attacked the man with a baseball bat, and killed him when they set fire to his home. The second case, Jackson v. Hobbs, involved another 14-year-old boy in Arkansas who, along with two older boys, tried to rob a video store in 1999. One of the older boys involved in the robbery shot and killed the store clerk as he was going to call the police. Both Mr. Miller and Mr. Jackson received mandatory sentences of life without parole for murder.
Proponents for harsh penalties point to the “sanctity of life” as the reason a juvenile should be sentenced harshly for crimes involving killings. There age should not be an excuse for punishment given the severity of their crimes. However, in oral arguments, Justice Ginsburg turned the argument around, noting that the same interest in the sanctity of an individual’s life could be used as justification for not severely punishing young offenders. By imposing a life sentence without the possibility on a 14-year-old, the state has essentially thrown away that person’s life.
Those opposed to meting out such harsh sentences believe that teenagers are immature and should be given a more lenient punishment because of that inexperience. While they acknowledge a life sentence is appropriate in such heinous situations, they believe that tacking away even the hope of parole is a step too far for such young criminals. Proponents of harsh punishment worry that teens have less incentive to commit such crimes in the future if they know that all they have to do is claim immaturity when they’re caught.
The Court weighed several possibilities when hearing the case and they include the following options:
· Prohibiting life without parole sentences for any minor under the age of 15.
· Prohibiting life without parole sentences for anyone under the age of 18.
· Ban life without parole sentences for defendants who only acted as accomplices to a crime.
· Bar mandatory sentences, relying on the discretion of the particular judge to consider all the facts and circumstances of the case before reaching a decision.
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