Supreme Court bans mandatory life sentences for juveniles

Published: Tuesday, June 26 2012 1:44 p.m. MDT

The Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 25, 2012. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for state laws to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

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Stacey Torrance didn't let himself believe until he'd heard the news twice.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declared laws automatically sentencing youths convicted of murder to life in prison without parole unconstitutional, the television newscaster reported. Convicted of murder at 14, Torrance, a 38-year-old inmate at a Pennsylvania state prison, was 24 years into a life sentence. Though he didn't kill 16-year-old Alex Porter and he wasn't there when his cousin and another man killed the boy, Torrance went to prison because he helped plan a 1988 robbery that led to the teen's murder. In Pennsylvania, all first- and second-degree murder convicts are automatically sentenced to die behind bars.

"I waited another 15 or 20 minutes to hear them say it again," Torrance told the Philadelphia Enquirer. "I wanted to make sure my eyes saw it right."

Now, Torrance and some 2,000 other juvenile offenders may be eligible for eventual release, The New York Times reported. The decision strikes down laws in 29 states, where murderers are automatically sent to prison for life regardless of age. The decision requires lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges will consider children's age, character and life circumstances as well as the circumstances of their crimes.

The cases highlights a nationwide trend toward a less punitive approach to juvenile justice. Motivated by burgeoning incarceration costs and new research that shows prison may not be the most effective approach to reforming wayward youth, many states are shutting down juvenile prisons in favor of a more community-centered approach. The Supreme Court's decision is the latest in a series of rulings lightening up on juvenile offenders. In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court did away with the death penalty for youths. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the court declared life without the possibility of parole unconstitutional for all crimes except murder.

Some prisoner rights advocates praised the decision as "historic."

"This is an important win for children," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents the two boys whose cases were reviewed by the Supreme Court. "The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don't allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change."

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without parole, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.

"The large number of individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole represents the dismantling of the founding principles of the juvenile justice system," he said. "These youth were failed by systems intended to protect children. Many juveniles sentenced to life without parole first suffer from extreme socioeconomic disadvantage, and are then sentenced to an extreme punishment deemed unacceptable in any other nation.”

University of Houston law professor David R. Dow, though, called the ruling "tepid" and "narrow."

Many of those who hope to benefit from the ruling may still die in prison, he wrote in an op-ed for The Daily Beast. The court did not rule that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional. It merely held that state laws imposing mandatory life sentences for youths are cruel and unusual punishment.

"So, for instance, it would still be OK for a jury to sentence ... any 14-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as long as the jury has the option not to issue that sentence," he wrote. "You have to have awfully low standards to think this decision marks much by way of progress when it comes to criminal punishment."

The Supreme Court let down America's youths, he wrote, by allowing an "immoral punishment" to survive.

"It's true that some thugs will never change, and parole boards can deny them parole every time their number comes up," he wrote. "But it is equally true that many people who commit horrific crimes do in fact change profoundly, and mandating that they die in prison anyway is cruel in any meaningful sense of the word."

For his part, Torrance dreams of leading a normal life as an electrician. At this point, though, he isn't expecting anything.

"I'm grateful and this is good news. But one thing prison has taught me is patience," he said. "What does this mean? I don't know what comes next."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com; TWITTER: elizMstuart

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