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SCOTUS Offers Hope for Juvenile Offenders Sentenced to Life in Prison

Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling means hundreds of so-called "juvenile lifers" could be considered for release. (kconnors/morguefile)
Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling means hundreds of so-called "juvenile lifers" could be considered for release. (kconnors/morguefile)
January 26, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - There's new hope that more than 2,000 people sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles may not have to spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Many received automatic life sentences for murders, without consideration of their youth or other factors. But on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a 2012 decision barring mandatory life without parole for child offenders applies retroactively.

Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's juvenile-justice strategy group, said the ruling takes into account what numerous studies have shown about the teenage brain.

"It sends a critical message that all children, even those who've committed the worst crimes, are different from adults," he said, "and we know this."

A spokesperson for the Florida Juvenile Justice Association said the ruling supports research that shows the adolescent brain isn't fully developed until the mid-20s. Last year, Florida's highest court also ruled unanimously that all Florida juveniles convicted of homicide who received automatic life sentences must be re-sentenced under a state law passed in 2014.

Balis said the ruling represents a positive step in the juvenile-justice system, recognizing that most adolescents have the capacity for change and rehabilitation.

"It raises questions about any laws that transfer young people for decisions that they made - for the worst day that they had as a 15- or 16-year-old, or a 14-year-old - that transfers them to an adult system that's not equipped to work with them," he said.

Florida is one of nine states that, together, account for more than 80 percent of all juvenile sentences of life without the possibility of parole, according to a recent report.

Meanwhile on Monday, President Obama announced a series of criminal-justice reforms he plans to take through executive action, including a ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities.

The ruling is online at supremecourt.gov.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - FL