In a ruling last week involving a Mississippi prisoner who was 15 years old when he stabbed his grandfather to death in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court made it easier for states to sentence minors to life in prison without parole.
The 6-3 ruling was a change of course from prior cases that worked in favor of young criminals. In 2005 the court said the death penalty for minors violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In 2010 it restricted juvenile life-without-parole sentences to those who had killed someone. And in 2012 it banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers.
Without doubt, some of these minors deserve the harshest possible, longest-term punishment. But given that Mississippi, at the time of the 2012 Supreme Court ruling, had 87 people serving life-without-parole sentences for teenage crimes, it is fair to ask if this sentence is being applied excessively.
If the answer is “yes,” it may be due to a quirk in the justice system. A story last November by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting noted that the state Legislature has not passed a new law to bring juvenile sentencing in line with U.S. Supreme Court rulings from a few years ago.
In that absence, the Mississippi Supreme Court has given state judges two sentencing options for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder or capital murder. Judges can sentence a juvenile to either a life term with parole eligibility after 10 years; or to life without parole.
That’s an easy decision for almost any judge. Few would be willing to risk the release of a young killer after only 10 years in prison. By default, that very likely makes life without parole all but a mandatory sentence, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week only seemed to encourage it.
In the case decided last week, the 15-year-old boy was living with his grandparents when the grandfather found a girl in the teen’s bedroom. That same day, the grandfather was fixing a sandwich when another argument started. The grandson stabbed his grandfather eight times, first with a kitchen knife, and then with another one when the original weapon broke. The teen did not call 911, tried to hide the body and fled with his girlfriend.
At the time of the original conviction, state law required life without parole. The 2012 Supreme Court ruling forbade such mandatory sentences, but in a second hearing after that ruling, a judge again gave the defendant a no-parole life sentence.
Was there any other choice? The crime merited much more than 10 years in prison — at least 25 or 30, and maybe more. But life without parole should be reserved for the worst offenders. This troubled, impulsive, angry kid does not seem to meet that definition.
Juvenile justice is tricky. Killers of all ages should be locked up. The question that applies to juveniles is, for how long? Courts and legislatures clearly have work to do on this topic.