by Max Brantley
The decision included the case of Kuntrell Jackson, sentenced to life in Arkansas. He was tried as an adult for being an accomplice in a Blytheville convenience store robbery that ended in murder. Life without parole was the only possible sentence because juveniles are exempt from the death penalty.
The court majority held this was an excessive sanction. The mandatory sentence prevents courts from considering youth and "from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender."
I'm seeking an update on the number of lifers in the Arkansas system who were sentenced as juveniles. UPDATE: Here are the 57 people currently serving life without parole sentences in Arkansas for murders committed when they were 17 or younger. Four were sentenced to life without parole as 14-year-olds, all for capital murder: Jackson and Cedric Harris, Brandon Isbell and Derrick Shields.
Today's decision expands an earlier decision preventing life sentences for juveniles convicted in non-homicide cases.
The attorney general is evaluating what happens next. Said spokesman Aaron Sadler:
We respect the Supreme Court’s decision in this matter, and we anticipate moving forward with state court proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.
Little Rock attorney Jeff Rosenzweig was already working with the Arkansas ACLU on new sentences for 13 people sentenced to life as juveniles in Arkansas for non-capital cases. They were entitled to consideration because of an earlier Supreme Court decision barring life sentences for charges less than murder. The 57 serving life for capital crimes will now be added to the list, for a total of 70, who'll have to be resentenced. What's somewhat uncertain, Rosenzweig said, is whether all those convicted in the capital cases can be reduced to a term of the maximum years possible under the crime or whether each will require a new sentencing trial. One of those on the list convicted of murder has been in prison since 1974 for a crime when he was 17.
Here's the list of 13 people serving life sentences for non-capital crimes committed as juveniles.
Bryan Stevenson of Montgomery, Ala., attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative that took the case to the Supreme Court, said, however, he believes a full sentencing proceeding — taking into account all mitigating circumstances — will be constitutionally required in all the cases.
The court majority said in the case of Jackson and an Alabama defendant:
The two 14-year-old offenders in these cases were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In neither case did the sentencing authority have any discretion to impose a different punishment. State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate. Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s “lessened culpability” and greater “capacity for change,” and runs afoul of our cases’ requirement of individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties. We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The brief for Jackson notes that he was not the triggerman and his youth couldn't be considered in sentencing.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families applauded the ruling but said the state should move to end life sentences for juveniles in all cases.
Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court confirms what the court has stated in previous decisions. Youth do not have adult levels of judgment, impulse control, or ability to assess risks. This means youth are not as responsible for their conduct and may not be punished as severely as adults. Compared to adults, youth who do commit crimes are also more likely to reform their behavior and have a better chance at rehabilitation. The Supreme Court has already stated that “From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”
Our youth deserve meaningful and periodic reviews of their sentences, to ensure that those who can prove they have been reformed are given an opportunity to re-enter society as contributing citizens. One thing they don’t deserve – and the court reaffirmed this today – is a statute that requires mandatory sentencing of life without parole for certain crimes.