In a five- to-four ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that imposed mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, affirming its belief that children are to be treated differently in the court system. The Supreme Court did make it clear that if this type of punishment is imposed on a child on a discretionary basis, justification would have to be made under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court reviewed two cases involving violent crimes by youths in making its ruling. In the case in Arkansas, some friends decided to rob a video store and a clerk was murdered. The other case was from Alabama where a young adult, after a night of drug use, beat a neighbor with a baseball bat and set fire to his trailer. The neighbor subsequently died of smoke inhalation.
With the ruling, lower courts are now mandated to have new sentencing hearings whereby the courts are to take the individual character of the child, the circumstances of the child's life and the crime committed into account when determining sentencing. So, juveniles sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole will now have a second bite at the sentencing apple. This Supreme Court ruling will affect future violent juvenile offenders as well because sentences of life in prison are no longer a viable court option.
While reactions to this ruling will likely be polarized, it is important to remember that all defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and even guilty convictions can be overturned. New evidence emerges, witnesses recant their statements and crime lab reports can be shown to be unreliable. In cases involving such extreme consequences as the death of another person, investigations must be thorough and trials must be impartial in order to protect the rights of all parties - especially juveniles who still have their whole life ahead of them.
Source: Arkansas News, "U.S. Supreme Court: Arkansas sentencing law violates 8th amendment," Peter Urban, June 25, 2012