WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday abolished the imposition of mandatory sentences of life without parole for all juveniles convicted of murder.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the 5-4 majority, said, "By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment."
The ruling that such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment continues the juvenile justice reform movement's streak of victories at the high court over the last decade. In 2005, the justices eliminated the death penalty for minors. In 2010, the court struck down life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion both times, joined by the court's four-justice liberal bloc.
In the two cases decided together on Monday, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, Kennedy once again sided with the liberals -- Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Kagan made it clear that her opinion did not affect those juvenile homicide offenders who had been sentenced to life without parole in states where it was not mandatory. Monday's opinion, she wrote, strikes down only those sentencing regimes that prevent a jury from considering a juvenile's "chronological age and its hallmark features -- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences," as well as "the family and home environment that surrounds him -- and from which he cannot usually extricate himself -- no matter how brutal or dysfunctional."
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Thomas and Alito each filed individual dissents as well.
"Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again," Roberts wrote. "But that is not our decision to make. Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole."
Alito wrote that after Thursday's decision, "[e]ven a 17 1/2-year-old who sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a 'child' and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society."
Alito went on to protest the majority's blaming the existence of mandatory regimes on the "inadvertent legislative outcomes" from the interplay between states' laws that put juveniles in adult courts for certain crimes and then require life without parole for anyone convicted of those crimes. Reading his dissent from the bench to emphasize the depth of his disagreement, Alito predicted the affected states to pass resolutions that say, "we're really not that stupid, we can put two and two together."
"Do not expect such resolutions to convince the Court to change course," Alito said.
Erin Mershon contributed to this report.