UPDATE: A Lifetime Behind Bars for Juvenile Offenders Dealt Huge Blow
On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the consolidated cases Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. In a hotly contested 5-4 decision, the justices struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenses as a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The new ruling does not mean life without parole may no longer be imposed on offenders for crimes committed as a juvenile. Instead, it invalidates the mandatory sentencing structures in place in many states that require a sentence of life without parole for murder regardless of the age of the defendant. More than 2,000 inmates across the country are currently serving life terms imposed under the types of mandatory sentencing structures barred by the Supreme Court for crimes committed as juveniles. For them, a sentence review may now be a possibility. For homicides committed at the age of 17 or younger, judges will have the discretion to look beyond the fact of the crime itself to other factors, such as the offender’s age at the time of the offense, the offender’s background, and, for those currently serving life terms of the kind invalidated by the Court, perhaps evidence that shows the inmate has changed while imprisoned. The Supreme Court did not issue instructions on how courts across the country should implement their ruling, and judicial reviews of all sentences are not necessarily the only solution. At least some in Pennsylvania are suggesting legislative action that simply allows juvenile lifers to ask for parole as a remedy. But, even a chance at parole would offer some measure of hope to Pennsylvania’s 373 inmates currently serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. The new Supreme Court decision gives judges the authority to issue a more lenient sentence based upon the defense attorney’s arguments. Now, more than ever, strong advocacy is needed for juveniles accused of a serious crime or those behind bars seeking parole.