The divided SCOTUS (5-4 ruling) decided that mandatory life without parole sentences - or death in prison, is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles, and as such, a violation of the 8th amendment.
“Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what ‘any parent knows’ — but on science and social science as well,” Kagan wrote…
Although this is a step forward for officially recognizing the “unique status of children and their potential for change”, this decision only applied to mandatory life cases.
There are 2,300 inmates serving life-without-parole sentences for murders committed before they were 18. But only 79 nationwide were 14 or younger at the time of their crimes, and about 90 percent of those are serving mandatory sentences. [via]
Earlier research I was involved in looked at the age of a juvenile offender, trying them as adults and how that effected sentencing. In an experiment we had 13, 15 and 17 year old kids as convicted murderers. Our mock jury (subject pool) was more likely to punish both the 13 and 17 much harsher -including the death penalty- than the 15 year old.
The reason? The 13 year old was “too damaged” and the 17 year old was “close enough to adulthood and should have known better”. Pretty interesting since all of them are legally minors and share similar developmental/rehabilitation potential.
Regarding trying juveniles as adults, unfair punishment and mitigating circumstances, Kagan goes on:
…in many states, prosecutors have the sole authority to decide when to bypass the juvenile justice system—and mandatory-sentencing schemes often result in “mismatches,” as Kagan put it, between the severity of the penalty and the offender’s culpability. “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.” [via]