Life Sentences for Juveniles Must Be Reviewed

Suzanne Potter/ California News Service
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empty sandstone gaol in maitland nsw built early nineteenth century

About 2,000 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as children may not have to spend the rest of their lives in prison, thanks to a decision on Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2012, the high court banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. Monday’s decision made that retroactive, which means those people now are eligible for re-sentencing or parole hearings.

Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile-justice strategy group, applauded the ruling.

“The adolescent brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s,” he said. “Young people ought to be treated as youth who are still changing and who are capable of changing, which means it should be about their development and not about punishment.”

About 300 people are in California prisons in this situation. However, they’re already eligible for re-sentencing after 15 or 20 years, the result of a state law passed in the wake of the 2012 Supreme Court ruling.

“The rest of the world, through the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Children, has said sentencing children for an act committed at 15, 16, or 17, to serve the rest of their life in prison – it’s an inhumane sentence,” said Daniel Macallair, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. “Civilized countries don’t do it, and we shouldn’t do it.”

Macallair said California judges always have had discretion on sentencing, because the state never had mandatory life without parole for juveniles, even for the most serious crimes.

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.

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