Ruling in two cases involving 14-year-old murderers, the U.S. Supreme Court this week rightly struck down laws in 29 states that require some minors convicted of murder to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Unfortunately, the justices stopped short of prohibiting all such sentences. That muddied the legal waters and made it likely that they will have to consider future cases from states where that penalty is permissible but not required.
The 5-4 decision involved two crimes. Kuntrell Jackson participated in an attempted holdup of a video store in Arkansas in which another boy shot a clerk to death. Evan Miller was convicted by an Alabama court, along with a 16-year-old friend, of killing a neighbor by beating him and setting his trailer on fire.
The question was whether, despite these offenses, it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment to deny Jackson and Miller a chance at some point to demonstrate that they had reformed.
In a 2005 ruling that prohibited capital punishment for juveniles, the court cited the findings of psychologists and neurologists, It identified three differences between younger teenagers and adults.
Adolescents are likelier than adults to display a "lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility." They are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure. And "the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult."
Using that reasoning, the court ruled in 2010 that states could not sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes other than homicides. In her majority opinion this week, Justice Elena Kagan cited the 2005 and 2010 decisions.
But she also based her ruling on precedents in which the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory death sentences for adults and required that sentencing judges take into account possible extenuating circumstances. She concluded that "the confluence of these two lines of precedent leads to the conclusion that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the 8th Amendment."
It is constitutional for judges to impose such sentences at their discretion, she said. But she predicted that valid uses of that authority would be "uncommon."
This limited approach may have been necessary to win the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinions in the 2005 and 2010 decisions. In those cases, he cited trends against imposing the death penalty on juvenile murderers and sentencing adolescents to life in prison without possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses.
Whatever the explanation, the court has not yet done away with the need for legislation that would enable those who are convicted of even the most heinous crimes to prove that they are entitled to another chance.
-- Los Angeles Times