Supreme Court reverses course over murder sentences for minors

| Apr 28, 2021 | Post-conviction Relief |

More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court began to support more lenient sentences for juveniles in murder cases, the court’s conservative majority has made it easier to sentence young people convicted of murder to life in prison without parole in half of U.S. states.

In the court’s 6-3 ruling on April 22, the three liberal justices dissented, saying life-without-parole sentences should be rare for those under 18. But all six conservative justices said minors who commit murder do not have to be deemed “permanently incorrigible” and incapable of rehabilitation to receive the maximum punishment.

The decision reflects the high court’s new majority

Starting in 2005, the court ruled in a series of cases that juveniles should be treated differently from adults due to a lack of maturity. That same year, they eliminated capital punishment for children and, in 2010, removed life-without-parole sentences for minors, except in murder cases.

When other challenges over sentencing juveniles arose in 2012 and 2016, the court also sided with minors, saying life without parole should not be an option unless there was no hope that the young person could be rehabilitated.

The main difference between then and now is that Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who supported leniency towards minors, have been replaced with more conservative justices.

The ruling is concerning to fair sentencing and juvenile advocates

Oregon is one of 25 states that bar state courts from issuing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. But the ruling is troubling to many. The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth organization says the court’s decision is out-of-touch with national trends and could result in arbitrary and uneven punishment for minors.