It’s not a total ban on juvenile life without parole, but at least now courts considering the crimes of juvenile offenders will have options other than a mandated life without parole sentence. So it’s a welcome step forward.
By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that laws mandating life without parole for juvenile offenders, with no other options, are unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual punishment”. In other words, to be constitutional, a juvenile life without parole scheme needs to have other, lesser, alternatives, so that courts will have the flexibility to consider mitigating factors that are invariably part of a young offender’s background.
While this ruling still allows for the possibility that those under 18 years of age at the time of the crime could be sentenced to life without parole, it is a step in the right direction.
According the Justice Roberts’ dissent, there are over 2,000 juvenile offenders currently serving life without parole who were sentenced under a mandatory scheme (see our infographic). This represents about 80% of the child offenders serving life without parole.
But the U.S. should not be locking up children for life at all.
The United States stands virtually alone in the world in imposing such sentences, which amount to locking a young person up and throwing the key away for life. This is a clear violation of international human rights law. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly prohibits life imprisonment without the possibility of release committed by people under 18 years old. All countries except the USA and Somalia have ratified the Convention.
So maybe now is a good time for state legislatures to go ahead and bring the U.S. into line with international law and get rid of juvenile life without parole once and for all.