The justices had ruled that life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed by juveniles should be reserved for “uncommon” cases, but states like Louisiana and Michigan are retaining them in many cases. The Supreme Court may review the issue again.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear two cases asking the justices to ban life-without-parole sentences for juveniles categorically. It should be an easy call, the New York Times says in an editorial. For more than a decade, the court has been growing more protective of juveniles who are facing the harshest punishments in our justice system. In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for people who committed their crimes before turning 18. In 2010, it outlawed juvenile sentences of life without parole in all cases but homicide. In 2012, it barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles in all cases. Last year, it made that ruling retroactive for the more than 2,000 inmates already sentenced.
Every case turned on the idea that young people are “constitutionally different” from adults — less in control of their emotions and more able to change over time — and should be punished differently. In 2012, the high court said states could still impose life without parole, but only in “uncommon” cases involving the “rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.” Twenty states and the District of Columbia now ban the sentence in all cases. In a few states, prosecutors are still behaving as though the last 12 years never happened, the Times says. The problem is worst in Louisiana and Michigan, which together account for more than a quarter of all juvenile lifers. Michigan prosecutors are seeking resentences of life without parole in more than half of the state’s cases. In Louisiana, the state wants life without parole for 82 of the 258 people whose mandatory sentence was struck down last year.