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Supreme Court bars mandatory life sentences for juveniles

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Two justices, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, favored imposing a blanket ban on all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. While rejecting that option, Kagan noted: “We think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

Kagan said juvenile offenders should not be punished as harshly as adults, because they are generally less culpable than adults for their crimes, and enjoy a higher capacity to change. Studies have shown that judgment and character are not fully formed until an individual reaches his or her 20s.

The high court used that same rationale concerning the development of the brain and emotional maturity to justify two other landmark rulings – declaring the death penalty for juvenile offenders unconstitutional in 2005 and deciding in 2010 that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide crime violated the Eighth Amendment. 

The deciding fifth vote in all three cases was cast by the same justice, Anthony Kennedy.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Monday decision is not a logical extension of the court’s earlier holdings in 2005 and 2010.

“Those cases undoubtedly stand for the proposition that teenagers are less mature, less responsible, and less fixed in their ways than adults – not that a Supreme Court case was needed to establish that,” he said.

“What they do not stand for, and do not even suggest, is that legislators – who also know that teenagers are different from adults – may not require life without parole for juveniles who commit the worst types of murder,” he said.

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