JUVENILES CRIMINAL DEFENDANTS NOT SUBJECT TO MANDATORY LIFE SENTENCE
Criminal defendants in Mississippi who are juveniles are no longer subject to mandatory sentences of life without parol. The Supreme Court recently held in Miller v. Alabama, (US 2012) that the 8th Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited the application of mandatory sentencing schemes that require a life without parol in cases where a juvenile criminal defendant is being tried as an adult because the result in those cases is the absence of an analysis of the individual culpability of the defendant as a juvenile. The Supreme Court reversed the high courts of Alabama and Arkansas. Both of those state courts held that mandatory life sentences for juveniles was not violative of the 8th Amendment's prohibitions.
According to State Attorney General, Jim Hood, the Miller, decision does not have a large impact for juveniles that have already been sentenced to life without the possibility of parol due to the mandate of the parol statute (MS § 47-5-138). Jim Hood's comments and a brief synopsis of this story can be found in the article titled New Teen Sentences Likely article which recently appeared in The New Republic. The Mississippi Supreme Court announced that life in prison without the possibility of parol is mandatory (even for juveniles tried as adults) convicted of capital murder in Puckett v Abels, (MS 1996). In Puckett,the State high court held that the parole statute as amended made life sentences without the possibility for parol mandatory in capital murder cases where the death sentence was not imposed.
The Supreme Court in Miller, (supra) has declared such a mandatory sentence imposed on juvenile defendants unconstitutional and in violation of the 8th Amendment. In that case, the state courts argued that the juvenile defendant's particular circumstances such as his/her age, maturity, history, and the specifics of their crime are analyzed by the justice system when it decides whether to transfer the child out of juvenile court to be tried as an adult. This argument fails to recognize that the decision to try a juvenile as an adult is often left to the prosecutor and some states even have mandatory transfer statutes. The Court rejected it.
The Supreme Court said that children are constitutionally different then adults due to a multitude of factors affecting their culpability. They are more susceptible to social pressures and are more impulsive than mature adults. Juveniles can have more struggles when trying to escape from dangerous circumstances. There are many factors that distinguish a child's culpability from that of an adult. A child's actions are less likely to evidence what the Court calls "irretrievable depravity."
Also, the Court notes that children have an increased potential for change and their crimes may be the result of a mere transient immaturity. The Court's opinion requires an evaluation of a juvenile's culpability during the sentencing phase, considering all factors affecting juvenile culpability. This evaluation must occur in the sentencing phase. The mere fact that a state provides for judicial discretion in the decision of whether or not to transfer a juvenile to adult court is not sufficient. This is the case in Mississippi. The Court held that the mere fact that a judge decides where a juvenile will be tried based on the limited evidence available before trial will satisfy the 8th Amendment's requirements.
The Miller, opinion does not say that children were incapable of committing horrible crimes with the requisite culpability to warrant life in prison without the possibility of parol. The crimes committed in the cases at issue were absolutely horrendous (as you can read in the court's full opinion). The opinion reads:
The Miller, opinion is a well reasoned opinion given by the Supreme Court. In a country that is all too often concerned with handing out the severest punishments possible in an effort to be tough on crime. While public safety is a legitimate goal for any society, in a democracy officials have to worry about reelection and they often boast proudly about the severe punishments they give to criminals. Many candidates have lost their bid for office because their opponent has branded them soft on crime. Punishment is a necessary part of any justice system, but the 8th Amendment protects the citizens from punishments that do not fit their crime. The Court has in this opinion done a laudable effort at requiring that the justice system take the time to discern a young persons culpability even when that task is difficult because of the different natures and maturity of young people. Punishments must be linked to culpability. Hopefully, the state legislatures in this country will do away with mandatory penalty schemes and place the determination of culpability and the appropriate punishment back into the hands of our justice system. In this way, every individual, not just juveniles, will be judged and punished according to their degree of fault.