Much attention last week has been focused on the Supreme Court’s decision on healthcare. The beginning of the week was filled with speculation about how the Court would rule and, now that the decision has been released, the news is filled with analysis of the decision, the spin the political parties are putting on it and the impact it will have on the coming election. Earlier in the week, the Supreme Court released another opinion on an issue that received less attention than the health care law but could have a major impact on criminal sentences for juveniles. The Supreme Court issued an opinion that found that mandatory life sentences for juveniles is unconstitutional as it violates the 8th Amendment that prevents cruel and unusual punishment. In Pennsylvania, this would apply to juveniles who are found guilty of first or second degree murder. In those cases, the mandatory sentence is life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lancaster Newspapers reported on this story here and, I must admit I was surprised to hear just how many juveniles this decision may affect. The article reports that as many as 400 juveniles in Pennsylvania are affected by this and 12 of those are from high profile cases in Lancaster County since 1990. While much of the coverage of this decision has focused on the unconstitutionality of the mandatory sentences and the possibility that thousands of juveniles around the country will need to be resentenced, the reality of the opinion is that it will not likely affect nearly as many of those sentences. The ruling provided that mandatory life sentences were impermissible for juveniles, but it did not go so far as to say that a thoroughly considered and reasoned decision by a sentencing judge to impose a life sentence is impermissible. In other words, courts can still impose a life sentence on a juvenile, it just cannot be mandatory. The majority decision found that the sentencing court must be able to consider various circumstances and factors, such as the age of the juvenile, in fashioning an appropriate sentence. If, after considering those circumstances, the judge believes a life sentence is still appropriate, it may still be imposed. This decision is not going to automatically release from prison all of the juveniles sentenced to life in prison, but it will give them a chance to demonstrate that their circumstances warrant a lesser sentence.
This decision is the latest in a line of decisions by the Supreme Court over the last 10 years which restricts or alters the penalties that can be imposed for juveniles committed of serious offenses. In 2005 the Court found the death penalty for juveniles to be unconstitutional and in 2010, the Court determined that life sentences for juveniles could only be imposed in cases where the juvenile was sentenced for crimes involving a murder.
So, while the Supreme Court’s decision about health care may be receiving all the media buzz, this case may be one of the more interesting decisions issued by the Court but may not get nearly as much attention.
Aaron Zeamer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas.