That’s the question that the Supreme Court will be deciding for some time this spring and summer culminating in a probable decision this June.
Here’s some sparring amongst the Justices on this issue from the Huff Post:
(Justice) Alito soon asked (Lawyer Bryan) Stevenson to “tell us where the age line needs to be drawn for constitutional purposes,” and Stevenson obliged.
“I would draw it at 18, Justice Alito, because we’ve done that previously, we’ve done that consistently.”
“And you would say that at 17 — a person of 17 years and 10 months, 11 months, who commits the worst possible string of offenses still — and demonstrates great maturity — still cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole,” Alito asked.
“That’s right,” Stevenson replied, pointing again to the previous two cases that drew that line.
Justice Stephen Breyer later played the opposite with Alabama Solicitor General John Nieman, asking him to name a lower age limit for the sentence of life without parole. “Do you want to say 12? Do you want to say 10? Do you want to say 9? Because as soon as whatever you say, I’m going to say, ‘And why not 14?'”
Kennedy, however, seized upon Stevenson’s more modest argument, put forward in his briefs, that the court could also declare unconstitutional the mandatory imposition of life without parole, leaving juries with the ability to mete out that punishment after they considered mitigating factors such as age, mental health, and home life. So seriously did Kennedy seem to take this option that several times he tried to pull Stevenson back from his maximalist argument.
Stevenson inspires me and it looks like he might gain a half victory for sure. My guess is that the justices will rescind the mandatory imposition of life without parole and leave juries to decide whether they can impose such a sentence after meting out all the factors involved.
Bryan Stevenson discusses the moral arguments around poverty, life in prison for teens and the death penalty in this TED video which is worth every second to watch.
For the record, I believe Judge Ginsburg made the best point of the day when she responded to this exchange:
Still, life without parole “reinforces the sanctity of human life and it expresses the State’s moral outrage,” Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Kent Holt said in defense of his state’s sentencing law.
“You say the sanctity of human life, but you’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope,” Ginsburg retorted. “I mean, essentially you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”
I agree we have no right to do that to someone, especially a poor someone who grew up without the opportunities that even lower middle class families have.
My mother would often say about children who get in trouble with the law, or who get addicted to drugs or alcohol a simple phrase. “What do we expect? That’s all they know. That’s all they see. That’s all they’ve been exposed to. For them, this is “normal.””
And while some escape a life of poverty there are far too many that don’t. The incarceration rate amongst impoverished people, regardless of race is sky high. Wealth is the great emancipator and for that we should be ashamed.