Editorial: Children in Prison for Life

New York Times

The Supreme Court’s ruling this week prohibiting mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder is a measured and important step in a trend in juvenile justice begun more than two decades ago. The court left open the possibility that minors under age 18 could be sentenced to life without parole — but only if the sentencing judge has made an individualized finding that such a penalty is appropriate, weighing the defendant’s characteristics and the details of the crime.

The 5-to-4 majority opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the moderate liberals, held that the mandatory punishment is unconstitutional because it fails “to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Minors, the court has said in past cases barring the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for those convicted of nonhomicide crimes, have a less developed sense of responsibility and are more vulnerable to peer pressures. Those critical differences mean juveniles should not necessarily get the same harsh punishment as adults, even when they commit horrible crimes.

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