At the end of June—just across the Potomac River from Northern Virginia—in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Supreme Court made a historic ruling. Voting 5 to 4, they ruled that laws sentencing juveniles convicted of murder to a mandatory life sentence without parole are unconstitutional. Such laws, they decided, violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Elena Kagan, voting with the majority, cited two precedents to support this change. First is the 2005 case that abolished the death penalty for juveniles, Roper v. Simmons. In the other case, Graham v. Florida in 2010, the court ruled that life without parole was unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of crimes that did not include killing.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” according to Justice Kagan. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative called the decision “an important win for children,” but he voiced some concerns. He pointed out that resentencing has to be initiated by the inmates, and that many of them do not have the money for a lawyer, and that the Supreme Court has said that inmates requesting new hearings do not have a constitutional right to counsel.
The Fairfax juvenile defense attorneys at the Taylor Law Company applaud this improvement in the justice system.