Ruling Puts Juvenile Sentencing in the Spotlight

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility for parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. California has more than 300 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors. But here, the sentence is not mandatory -- a judge has the discretion to impose a different term. What will the ruling mean for attempts in California to ban or amend the practice of giving juveniles life sentences?

Interview Highlights

On the court decision setting precedent:

"It's really a remarkable middle station as far as this development of 8th Amendment jurisprudence on sentencing."

"I call yesterday K-day because it was Kennedy and Kagan. Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion but Justice Kagan has revitalized the 8th Amendment and its application to sentences. It used to just be for dealth penalties and really wasn't very effective even there. Now they've used it to eliminate mandatory life without parol,or LWOP as we call it, for juveniles. That doesn't mean they can't get that sentence if its discretionary, but it does mean it can't be mandatory. That's 2000 young men who are on life without parole sentences will have an opporutnity now to have their sentences redone." 

Guests:

Rory Little, professor of law at UC Hastings College of the Law

Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate for Human Rights Watch in the Children's Rights Division and head of the coalition working toward ending life without parole sentences for juveniles in California

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"There are moments in doctrinal law in history where suddenly new ideas seem to open up because a majority of the court suddenly recoginizes them. Brown vs. Board of Education opened up 30 years, 40 years of continuing litigation of what does it mean to have equal protection under the law."

"You have two justices, Breyer and Sotomayor, who write a second opinion saying we don't think this less serious kid can get life without parole under any scenario because there's no evidence he intended to kill. That opens up another area for sort of reconsideration of people, and not just juveniles. Is there a limitation on life without parole where you don't intend to kill anyone even if one of your companions does?

- Rory Little

For many years now the states have passed laws that treat in increasingly harsh ways youth who commit serious crimes. And so this case is very, very important, even beyond the issue of life without parole for youth. It is, I think, it is the third case in very quick succession coming from the Supreme Court mandating that our courts and our laws look at youth as different from adults and that we consider  their youthful status when we look at sentencing them.

- Elizabeth Calvin

I think that is really the essence of this decision. Obviously, it primarily focused on the states that have mandatory laws but really the heart of this decision is that we need to treat young people like young people. - EL

On the court's division:

"This is a huge divide, this is a huge divide. The court is 5-4. And the four dissenters believe the court has no business doing this. They believe the 8th Amendment prevents only unusual punishments and this is not unusual since 2000 people have it, since 29 states adopted it. They just believe the court is completely away from the text of the Constitution. One of the interesting battles is actually how much weight should it carry that 29 states do this or not. Justice Kagan says 'Well if wasn't mandotory far fewer people would recieve the sentence. Dissenters say well the fact that this has been made mandority by 29 states, means the majority of people want this. So it's a huge big debate as to how to interpret the Constiution and apply this very general phrase 'cruel and unusual punishments are not permitted.'" - RL

The decision's impact on California:

It doesn't apply here. Justice Roberts in dissent says the problem with this decision is that we don't know where it
will stop. And I think he's right about that. California does not have a mandotory life without parole sentencing structure but the 300 people who are on this sentence, life without parole by discretion will all have an opportunity, I believe, to file saying 'In light of the court's reasoning, we should have a revitalized, rexamination of our sentences.'" - RL

On Calfiornia's Senate Bill 9:

SB 9 does not abolish life without parole and in that sense it seems to follow the reasoning of Miller versus Jackson, pretty closely. If passed it would allow judges to impose life without parole, but it would provide the opportunity for those youthful offenders, after they've spent a pretty long time in prison, to petition the court to review their case. And what that does, is allow the judge to look at that individual, after he or she has grown up, matured, become the adult that they're going to be and rexamine at that time if that person should be given the
possiblity of parole." - EL

On parole:

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The important point to notice is that the opportunity of parole does not mean someone will be released. - RL

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