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Court ends mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to impose mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole in juvenile criminal trials. The decision further emphasizes the approach that many courts have consistently taken in regard to juvenile crime; previous rulings eliminated the possibility of child offenders receiving a death sentence for their crimes. The court had also previously halted sentences of life without the possibility of parole in cases in which the crime did not result in killing .

The decision held that mandatory sentencing of life without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of murder violates the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment. Notably, the decision does not prohibit judges from sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without possibility of parole in individual cases; it simply eliminates mandatory sentencing in New Jersey and all other states.

The decision will allow judges to evaluate each case and each offender, on the particular circumstances at hand, and to hand out sentences that reflect the severity of the alleged crime and the potential of the offender to rehabilitate.

This decision was not reached without controversy. The Supreme Court vote was 5-4 in favor of eliminating this form of mandatory sentencing. In reading his dissent aloud, Justice Samuel Alito voiced his opposition to this ruling. Alito asserted that by halting mandatory sentencing of life without the possibility of parole, legal minors can commit heinous crimes and then receive the ability to ask the trial court for leniency in sentencing due to their age at the time of the offense.

At present, an estimated 2,500 individuals who were convicted for crimes committed while they were minors are serving time with no possibility for parole. Of these, more than 2,000 were sentenced under mandatory sentencing guidelines that did not permit the trial judge to consider alternative sentencing.

The recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court will have significant effects on the way that courts handle juvenile crime in New Jersey and elsewhere. When children enter the criminal court system, they will be able to present a defense that focuses on their age as a factor in determining accountability as well as the ability to rehabilitate and reenter society at some point in the future.

Source: NorthJersey.com, "Court: No automatic life without parole for kids," Jesse J. Holland, June 25, 2012

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