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Supreme Court takes another look at sentences for minors

In the past 10 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has tackled juvenile offender sentencing questions a few times. Each decision has been a step away from imposing the harshest sentences available on minors who have been convicted of the most serious crimes. This week, the court heard arguments in what amounts to an extension of a 2012 case.

The court took the first step in 2005 with its ruling that the death penalty for juveniles convicted of murder was unconstitutional. In 2010, the court banned life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of serious crimes, holding an exception for murder cases.

The next logical step, then, was to challenge the imposition of a mandatory sentence of life without parole in murder cases. The court got its chance in 2012 and ruled not that the mandatory sentence was unconstitutional, but that it was "constitutionally disproportionate" for minors. When sentencing minors, courts should be allowed to take other evidence into account -- a lack of maturity, the influence of others, a lifetime of abuse and other signs that rehabilitation is possible. (See our June 12, 2012, post for more about the decision.)

The 2012 decision applied only to juvenile offenders sentenced thereafter. The court did not address whether the rule could be applied retroactively -- until now.

The offender, now approaching 70, was 17 years old when he killed a deputy sheriff in Louisiana. The offender is black, and the victim was white. The first trial was found to have been tainted by racial prejudice, and the verdict was set aside. The second trial ended with a conviction and a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Generally, a court decision is not retroactive. Congress and state legislatures can apply the rulings retroactively with a law change, but a court decision, with very few exceptions, looks ahead. The offender's attorneys argued that the 2012 decision qualified as one of the few exceptions.

A decision in favor of retroactivity would directly affect an estimated 1,000 offenders -- a relative few. The concern is that such a decision would put every other decision into question: Why would this relief be retroactive and not every other sentencing decision issued by the Supreme Court or any other court?

A decision is not expected before Christmas.

Source: NBC News, "Supreme Court to Consider Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles," Pete Williams, Oct. 13, 2015

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