In its ruling prohibiting life without parole sentences for under-age killers, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has codified into law the same denial of judicial discretion the U.S. Supreme Court endeavored to correct in a 2012 ruling on juvenile justice.
And in its attempt to protect the rights of killers, the SJC has done a severe injustice to the families of victims of juvenile murderers.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama ruled 5-4 that mandatory life in prison without parole sentences for murderers under age 18 violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan noted that juveniles, due to their physical and emotional immaturity, are prone to dangerous and rash behaviors. Such mandatory sentences prevent a judge from weighing the facts of the specific case.
“Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” Kagan wrote. “Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other — the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one.”
Earlier high court cases had prohibited capital punishment for juveniles and mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youthful offenders in non-homicide crimes. Kagan noted that it is difficult in such cases to distinguish between offenders whose crimes reflect “unfortunate yet transient immaturity” and those resulting from “irreparable corruption.”
“Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” Kagan wrote.
Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment. The SJC ruled that all sentences of life without parole, whether mandatory or discretionary, are unconstitutional.