No more life without parole for people who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18, the Supreme Court has ruled. This will have no apparent effect in New York, where a defendant has to be older than 18 to be convicted of first-degree murder, the only level of crime for which life without parole is an available sentence.
The two Supreme Court cases just decided revolved around two 14-year-olds, one in Alabama and one in Arkansas, both of whom had committed murder. The laws of those states required life without parole for the offenses committed, no exceptions allowed, no consideration given to the age of the perpetrators, which is all that the Supreme Court struck down, please note. States can still impose life without parole on youngsters, but it cannot be mandatory. Judges have to have to be allowed some discretion. It was the mandatoriness that the court found to be “cruel and unusual.”
New York held 245 inmates doing life without parole as of the beginning of the year, I am informed by the Department of Corrections. The youngest of those was 21, but I was unable to get information on the ages at which the crimes were committed. In any event, they could not have been as minors.
In New York anyone 16 or older who commits a crime is automatically treated as an adult, but those aged 16 to 18 may be granted “youthful offender” status, qualifying them for more lenient treatment. An exception is made for murder — no youthful offender status for that, but when it comes to first-degree murder — the killing of a cop, a prison guard, a newspaper columnist — the big penalty cannot be applied, and even for adults it is not mandatory, only optional. So the Supreme Court ruling has no direct effect here, as far as I can determine.
(I was just joking about newspaper columnist; there is not really an enhanced penalty for us. But please don’t get any ideas on that account.)
I was interested to see the split in the Supreme Court decision — 5-4, as it is in so many cases, always suggesting to me not an impartial reading of the law but simply adherence to ideological position. Liberals favored leniency, the chance for release on parole. Conservatives favored the sledgehammer, even though they profess not to like government. The swing vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy went with the liberals.
Chief Justice John Roberts, a dissenter, argued it was not “‘unusual for [a] murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” and therefore it could not be deemed “cruel and usual punishment,” which I thought was a neat argument.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 2,750 inmates in the United States are under sentence of life without parole for crimes committed when they were minors, and the organization is against it, citing “a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults and recognition that children are entitled to special protection and treatment.”