The wrongful taking of a life is our society’s greatest taboo. The harshest of punishments, a life spent behind bars with no chance of reprieve, awaits many of those convicted on the most serious homicide charges.
In recent years, a number of juvenile offenders have been sentenced to life without parole. But is it fair, given constitutional protections, to lock someone up for life over a crime — however heinous — committed at a young, impressionable age? In March of 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case seeking to answer that very question.
Is Life Without Parole Cruel and Unusual For 14-Year-Olds?
Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson are both serving life terms without the possibility of parole for their roles in separate homicides committed in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. Now in their twenties, both men committed their crimes when they were just 14 years old.
Miller and Jackson’s cases have been consolidated before the Supreme Court to address the constitutional question of whether a sentence of life imprisonment without parole may be imposed for juvenile crimes committed at age 14 or younger. Former court cases have already struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by anyone under 18, and prohibited life without parole for any juvenile crime other than homicide. Now, given the underdeveloped nature of the adolescent grasp on actions and consequences, advocates want to take it a step further.
The challenge to life without parole for very young felons is based on the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Making impassioned arguments to the Court, lawyers for Miller and Jackson insisted that categorically declaring someone unfit to ever again breathe free air for a crime committed at age 14 or younger is, given what we know about adolescent brain development, definitively cruel and unusual.
Juvenile Crimes Can Be Serious
At present, 79 inmates are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed at age 14 or younger. For them, the Supreme Court’s ruling could mean either a ray of hope for eventual release, or a resounding confirmation that their lifelong sentences will be upheld.
Whether life terms for young offenders are prohibited or not, the seriousness of juvenile crimes should not be underestimated. If a child in your life has been charged with a crime, a strong legal defense may be his or her best route to a bright future.