“We are not suggesting that states should not be able to impose very harsh punishments and very severe sentences on even children who commit these kinds of violent crimes,” Bryan Stevenson, a Montgomery, Ala., attorney, told the justices.
“What we are arguing is that they cannot do so [while offering them] no hope of release,” he said.
Stevenson told the court that young offenders are less culpable than adults for the crimes they commit. Studies have shown that biologically and psychologically, teens are more susceptible to peer pressure and more prone to impulsive and reckless behavior. Studies show that their judgment and character are not yet fully formed.
These factors must be considered in meting out appropriate punishment for crimes, Stevenson said. His argument wasn’t simply for leniency. He said life in prison with the possibility of parole could be an appropriate sentence in certain cases.
But he said that sending a 14-year-old to prison with no hope of release is cruel and unusual under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
“It would be cruel to declare these children fit only to die in prison given what we now know about their status, about their development, and about their potential,” he said.
Urging the high court to uphold Alabama’s sentencing scheme, the state’s solicitor general, John Neiman, said it should be up to state lawmakers to decide whether to punish the state’s worst criminals with a mandatory sentence of life without parole – even when they are as young as 14.
“The government’s primary goal here is expressing the retributive judgment about the wrongfulness of murder,” he said. “I think governments are quite legitimate and quite reasonable when they also say that they don’t want to roll the dice on convicted murderers.”
Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Kent Holt offered a slightly different argument. “The punishment for this crime reinforces the sanctity of human life and it expresses the state’s moral outrage,” he told the justices.