A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently ruled that judges cannot impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on some juveniles convicted of homicide.
This has been a very controversial subject over the years. It has also been an issue that I have dealt with in my practice. You may have heard of the juvenile in Polk Co. who was recently charged with murder. He was arraigned in superior court.
In Georgia, a juvenile is defined as a person younger than the age of 17. The vast majority of criminal cases involving juveniles (called delinquency cases in juvenile court) fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of juvenile courts.
However, some of the more serious and/or violent offenses can be prosecuted in superior court if the person is between the ages of 13-17. In fact, the superior court has exclusive jurisdiction when the offense is murder.
The punishment for murder in Georgia is death, life without parole, and life with parole.
In Miller v. Alabama another common 5-4 majority, held that it is unconstitutional for juveniles to be sentenced under a scheme that doesn’t give the judge the ability to consider factors such as the defendant’s age, maturity and upbringing in determining the sentence.
This case opens the floodgates for around 2,000 inmates nationwide to seek reversals of their life without parole sentences. I would expect that most of these sentences will eventually be modified to life sentences.
The decision came in the case of two 14-year-olds, Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson. They were convicted and sentenced to mandatory life in prison in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. It stops short of totally prohibiting sentences of life without parole for juveniles, but bars them when judges have no other choice following a finding of guilt.
The dissenting justices were markedly unhappy with the ruling. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said the majority had reached its result based on justices’ “personal views,” rather than a careful assessment of what most state legislators have determined as penalties for murder. He ridiculed Justice Kagan’s assertion that states haven’t explicitly authorized mandatory life without parole for juveniles, instead just allowing certain juveniles to be treated as adults who are subject to such sentences.
Legislators are “not that stupid,” Alito said. Justice Antonin Scalia joined Alito’s dissent.
While this decision will have a wide range effect on criminal justice across the nation, it will not affect Georgia as much as other states. In Georgia, when a defendant is found guilty of murder, the judge has the choice of sentencing the defendant to life with or without parole. (Assuming the defendant is not being sentenced under the repeat offender law). He is not required to sentence the defendant to life without parole.
What this decision does more than anything is to shift the public’s attention to the issue of extreme punishment for the youngest people in society.
Some studies suggest that the human brain does not fully develop until a person is in his or her mid twenties. We all know that young people make decisions that they regret in later years.
Conversely, there are very young people in society who are extremely violent and would not hesitate at taking the life of another human being. Some of these people should be in prison for a very long time.