Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Court Rules on Life Sentences for Juveniles

Sentencing juveniles to prison terms of life without the possibility of parole, even for a crime a serious as homicide, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and thus is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The 5-4 decision, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the Court's liberal justices, emphasized the difference between the brains and thus the decision-making capacity of youngsters and those of adults. The decision reflected points made by the American Psychiatric Association and other mental health organizations in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Court in the two cases at issue, both of which involve murders committed by youth who were age 14 at the time of the crimes. The amicus brief emphasized that adolescents' brains are still developing and that as a result, the immaturity, vulnerability, and changeability characterizing adolescent development should be considered when sentencing juveniles of murder. In previous decisions, the Court had ruled unconstitutional imposition of the death penalty on felons who were under age 18 at the time of the offense and life sentences without possibility of parole for juveniles convicted on crimes other than homicide.

Writing for the majority in yesterday's decision, Justice Elena Kagan acknowledged the research on adolescent development, saying that "Our decisions rested not only on common sense...but on science and social science as well." Read more about this case in Psychiatric News here, and APA's position statement on mandatory sentencing of juveniles here

(image: Kim Seidl/Shutterstock.com)


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