Commentary: Supreme Court Knocks Down Mandatory Life for Children

On Monday, the highest court in the land said states could not automatically put juvenile offenders in prison forever. That’s good news for the Black community.

Posted: 06/27/2012 05:10 PM EDT
California Department of Corrections

While everyone looks to the Supreme Court for news about Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which the court is set to rule on any day now, a decision that should be on everyone in the Black community’s radar has already come out this week. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that states cannot mete out mandatory life without parole sentences to children involved in homicide cases. In 28 states now, there are mandatory life sentences for children convicted of capital murder offenses, and there are about 2,500 prisoners in jail for the rest of their lives for crimes they committed when they were children. The Supreme Court’s ruling will hopefully remedy this travesty, at least a bit.

Note that the court didn’t say it was unconstitutional for children to receive the punishment of life in prison; it just said that, in event of a crime in which the mandatory minimum sentence is life without parole, states would have to take into account a child’s age before sending him to jail forever.

The Associated Press explains further:

By making youth "irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment," wrote Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined in the majority opinion by Kennedy and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.  

Monday's decision left open the possibility that individual judges could sentence juveniles to life without parole in individual cases of murder, but said state and federal laws cannot automatically impose such a sentence.  

This decision is in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing.

Though it’s a blow for everyone who thinks sending children to prison forever is abhorrent, this ruling should be one of great import to the Black community. Not only are almost two-thirds of children spending life in prison Black, studies show that Black juvenile defendants are more likely to be given life in prison if their victim is white. In short, the law is racially biased, and for that alone it should be barred.

Again, it’s important to note that the court didn’t say states can’t put kids in jail forever, meaning they may very well continue to do so. And if the past is a prologue, many of those kids will likely be Black. That said, this is a step in the right direction. The next step is improving how the rest of our justice system sees Black kids.

That’s a much more difficult fight.

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