The Supreme Court recently held that it is cruel and unusual punishment to send a young murderer to life in prison if a judge has not first weighed whether he deserves a shorter prison sentence due to his youth and the specific nature of his crimes. The 5-4 decision struck down laws on the books in some 28 states - including Missouri - that say life sentences without parole for juvenile murderers are acceptable.
Officials in Missouri law enforcement say it will take some time for the state to assess the impact of the ruling. It remains uncertain what exactly the impact the case will have on the 84 cases in the state in where a juvenile is currently serving life without parole. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, in 46 of those cases the offenders were 17 at the time of the crime, 25 were age 16, 11 were age 15, and two were age 14.
It's clear that Missouri's laws will have to be rewritten thanks to the recent ruling. It's important to note that the decision does not mean it's unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life I prison, only that statutes that make such sentences mandatory are no longer acceptable. In Missouri, if a juvenile who is certified as an adult is convicted of first-degree murder, the only option is life without parole.
In one recent high profile case, that of 15-year-old Antonio Andrews, the juvenile killed a police officer. The case eventually made its way up to the state Supreme Court where the defense attorney argued that a mandatory life sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment because it did not allow judges to take specifics about the defendant's situation into consideration, almost exactly what the U.S. high court held. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected the argument.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two cases of 14-year-old boys, one from Alabama and another from Arkansas, who were given life sentences for their roles in a murder. In the case of young people who participate in homicide, "a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty." Justice Elena Kagan wrote, "We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments.'" The Court's four conservative justices dissented, saying that nothing in the Constitution forbade laws requiring mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles. The recent ruling follows the ruling from 2010 where the justices held that life sentences with no parole are unconstitutional for juveniles who commit any crimes short of murder.
The ruling could lead to either new sentences or expedited parole hearings for more than 2,000 offenders across the country who were juveniles when they committed their crimes. It is important to understand that the recent decision does not mean any prisoners are freed from custody.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in the St. Louis area contact our St. Louis Criminal Defense Firm today at (314) 863-0500.
Source: "Missouri juvenile sentencing to change after Supreme Court decision," by Jennifer Mann, published at STLToday.com.
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