U.S. Supreme Court's new review on youths’ punishment

By Lyle Denniston

For the third time in recent years, the Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider putting a limit on the severity of punishment for youths who commit serious crimes before they are 18 years old.  Two youths who were 14-year-olds at the time of their crimes — one in Alabama, the other in Arkansas — have asked the Justices to rule that it is unconstitutional to impose on a minor a sentence of life in prison without a chance for parole in a murder case.  In one of the cases, there is an added claim that such a sentence may not be imposed if the youth did not personally kill the victim or intend that someone be killed.

The Court has shown a special concern for youthful criminals, treating them as less responsible than adults for what they do and therefore entitled to more leniency when they are sentenced.  In 2005, it barred the death penalty for those who commit murder when they are minors.  In 2010, it barred life-without-parole sentences for minors who commit serious crimes, but that ruling only dealt with non-homicide crimes.  The grant on Monday will now consider extending that second ruling to youths convicted of murder.

The cases are Miller v. Alabama (docket 10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647); the Court granted review of the two separately, but said that it will hear oral arguments in them back-to-back.  Those hearings are likely to be in late February, with the decision before next summer.


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