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Supreme Court: Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles Unconstitutional

June 28, 2012

In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court held that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of the offense violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court stated that “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.”

The case was watched closely by human rights groups who have long urged the United States to discontinue the practice of locking away people for life for crimes they committed before they were adults.  While virtually no other country has sentenced teens to life without the possibility of parole in recent decades, the United States has sentenced thousands of juveniles to such sentences. Approximately 2,500 inmates in the United States are currently serving life without parole for crimes they committed before adulthood, according to Amnesty International, one of many human rights groups which have long called for an end to the practice.

Besides the sheer absence of other countries which impose such sentences, opponents to the juvenile life sentences pointed to the lack of development in a child’s mind. In the past, the Court has cited scientific data showing juvenile minds are not yet fully developed as a basis for lowering a teen’s culpability for criminal conduct. In 2005, the Court struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders and, in 2010, put an end to life without parole sentences for crimes that did not involve a death.

According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, an estimated 31 Georgia inmates could now be facing modification of their sentences as a result of the Miller decision.

These inmates include Jonathan Bun, who was convicted of murdering Clayton County Sheriff Deputy Rick Daly in July 2011, when he was 17. As well as Lacey Aaron Schmidt, who was convicted of shooting and killing a classmate when he was 14.

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