How many times does the Supreme Court have to repeat itself before its message gets through? In the case of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, the answer seems to be: at least one more time.
On Tuesday, the justices will meet to consider whether to hear two separate cases asking them to ban those sentences categorically, in line with the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. It should be an easy call. And for more than a decade, the court has been moving in the right direction, growing ever more protective of juveniles who are facing the harshest punishments in our justice system.
In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for people who committed their crimes before turning 18. In 2010, it outlawed juvenile sentences of life without the possibility of parole in all cases but homicide. In 2012, it barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles in all cases. And in 2016, it made that ruling retroactive for the more than 2,000 inmates already sentenced.
Every case turned on the developing awareness that young people are “constitutionally different” from adults — less in control of their emotions and more able to change over time — and should be punished differently. In the 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, the court said states could still impose life without parole, but only after providing “individualized sentencing decisions” that take into account the “hallmark features” of youth, like “immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” The punishment should be reserved for “uncommon” cases, for that “rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.”
A few states had by then recognized that minors are not as morally culpable as adults, and had barred juvenile life-without-parole sentences across the board. But since the court’s string of rulings, many more states have come on board; 20 states and the District of Columbia now ban the sentence in all cases. In four other states it exists on the books but is never imposed in practice. Even Pennsylvania, the juvenile-lifer capital of the country, has since the 2016 ruling avoided seeking such sentences in all but the rarest circumstances. Not surprisingly, new sentences of life without parole for juveniles have also dropped sharply.