The Supreme Court issued several important rulings today, but the one that most impacts criminal law is the decision that bars mandatory life without parole for minors. This decision is not a surprise, as it’s in line with other recent decisions that mandate that those who commit offenses while under 18 should be treated differently. It extends the Graham v. Florida ruling, which restricts automatic life sentences for non-homicides to include homicides.
2 Key Points:
- This decision doesn’t mean that minors can’t be sentenced to life without parole. (I say minors, because sometimes minors can be treated as juveniles, but charged as adults, regardless of the infirmities of age.) It instead limits statutes from requiring automatic life sentences for minors. That is, it is unconstitutional for states to require that minors be sentenced to life without parole. It appears to leave open the possibility that states may still allow a judge to sentence them to life after review upon sentence, contrary to many headlines that I have already seen.
- This ruling will have the most effect in Florida, which has already had the greatest upheaval since the Graham decision I mentioned above. That’s because Florida leads the nation in juveniles sentenced to life for non-homicides. This FSU study is a couple of years old, but the numbers have only just started to correct since Graham. Florida’s numbers are high for several reasons. One reason is the high number of minimum/mandatory sentences in Florida, and due to the fact that it extends to felony murder cases. For instance, the 16-year-old in a car when a drug deal goes bad, or the 14-year-old whose big brother makes him a lookout for a burglary could be facing mandatory life without parole if someone is killed during the commission, even if it’s one of the criminals. Another reason is that judges in Florida are not given a cap or high-end sentencing range. This means a hanging judge can max out anyone who doesn’t take a plea bargain. Most don’t, but across the state, there are some that impose a ‘trial penalty’- a harsher sentence for exercising the constitutional right to trial.
Florida is already in the process of reviewing mandatory sentences for minors. I am generally a proponent of having some outlet so that a judge can make a review and determine what sentence is appropriate. Mandatories that allow for no discretion inherently run the risk of leading to unjust results.