Posted by Paul Kelly on June 25th 2012
This morning, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles. The decision will reverse an Arkansas court ruling in the case of Kuntrell Jackson, who was convicted of first-degree murder in Blytheville, Arkansas, in 1999. Although Jackson, who was 14 years old at the time, did not pull the trigger he received a sentence of life without parole for being an accomplice to murder. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families applauds today's decision, but calls on the state legislature to get rid of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles completely.
Today's ruling by the Supreme Court confirms what the court has stated in previous decisions. Youth do not have adult levels of judgment, impulse control, or ability to assess risks. This means youth are not as responsible for their conduct and may not be punished as severely as adults. Compared to adults, youth who do commit crimes are also more likely to reform their behavior and have a better chance at rehabilitation. The Supreme Court has already stated that "From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."
Our youth deserve meaningful and periodic reviews of their sentences, to ensure that those who can prove they have been reformed are given an opportunity to re-enter society as contributing citizens. One thing they don't deserve - and the court reaffirmed this today - is a statute that requires mandatory sentencing of life without parole for certain crimes.
Our hope is that our prosecutors and legislators keep these legal and moral imperatives in mind when shaping their response to this important ruling during the upcoming session," Kelly says. "A sentence of life without parole for a juvenile is basically a death sentence. We need to work on rehabilitating these kids and making sure those that do get better have a chance at starting over. The legislature has the ability to say "No more" to this type of mandatory sentencing, and we hope that they will.
According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth there are more than 2,500 juvenile offenders in prison in the United States serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed under the age of eighteen, and none in the rest of the world. Detailed research on the use of this sentence around the country has documented evidence of systemic racial disparities, gross failures in legal representation, and many examples of youth being sentenced more harshly than adults convicted of the same crimes. Despite popular thinking, a large portion of the people serving juvenile life without the possibility of parole (JLWOP) are not repeat offenders, nor have they been convicted of the most serious violent crimes. Nearly 60% of people serving JLWOP are first time offenders.
Kuntrell Jackson will now have to be re-sentenced. He is currently 26 years old and is serving out his sentence at the Tucker Unit maximum security prison in Tucker, Arkansas.