U.S. Supreme Court Bans Mandatory Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Children Convicted of Homicide

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued an historic ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional. Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, sentenced to life in prison without parole at 14, are now entitled to new sentencing hearings. Today’s ruling will affect hundreds of individuals whose sentences did not take their age or other mitigating factors into account.

The Court today struck down statutes in 29 states that provide for mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children, reasoning that mandatory imposition of life-without-parole sentences on children “contravenes Graham’s (and also Roper’s) foundational principle: that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.”

“This is an important win for children. The Court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change,” said Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents Jackson and Miller. “The Court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”

Today’s decision requires the lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges will have to consider children’s individual characters and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime.

While the Court did not categorically ban juvenile life without parole in all circumstances, Justice Kagan wrote for the majority that, “given all that we have said in RoperGraham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

Stevenson cautioned, however, that sentencing courts’ discretion must be exercised in an informed and thoughtful way that acknowledges that children are biologically different than adults and less responsible for their wrongdoing, and that the courts should provide the individuals affected by the ruling a meaningful opportunity to show they have rehabilitated themselves and are appropriate candidates for release.

Stevenson added that historically, race and poverty have been powerful forces in influencing which children receive life-without-parole sentences.

Today’s decision follows the Court’s earlier rulings in Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2010), which acknowledge the diminished culpability of children.

Groups as diverse as the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, the American Bar Association, mental health professionals, former juvenile court judges, criminologists, victims, and national advocacy organizations filed amicus briefs in the cases to urge the Court to give children an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed later in life.

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Why are some kids so hostile?

Early abuse ‘changes brain structure’

ABUSE in early childhood can dramatically alter the way the brain copes with stress in adulthood, research shows.

Children abused during their formative years can undergo a change in the structure of their brains, which inhibits the expression of a stress hormone-related gene (NR3C1).

This would make such children less able to cope with stress, according to the Canadian study, which examined the brains of 12 people with a history of child abuse who had taken their own lives.

The brain samples were compared with those of two other groups: people who had committed suicide but had no history of abuse, and those who had died of natural causes.

“They found significant differences in stress-related hormone receptors in those who had committed suicide and had been abused,” said Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Professor Ross Young, commenting on the findings.

“They also found evidence that parts of the NR3C1 gene may be switched off by this abuse, leading to an abnormal stress response in adulthood.”

The change in the functioning of the gene occurred in the hippocampus, the part of the brain largely responsible for memory function.

The study showed how the reduced expression of the gene led to an increase in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) response to stressful situations.

Such heightened HPA responses have previously been linked to an increased risk of suicide, mood disorders and also schizophrenia.

Early childhood experience has been shown to cause long-term genetic changes in the stress response pathway in rats, but this is the first evidence that the same thing happens in humans.

Prof Young, the executive director of the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at QUT, said the findings reinforced the importance of child abuse prevention.

“We also need to ensure that we have effective interventions that assist adults who have been abused in childhood to respond effectively to stress,” he said.

Prof Young said the research also underscored how “being raised in a stable and safe environment as a child helps us deal with stress in adulthood”.

The study is published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Mental Health Court for Kids (a parent’s perspective)

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