Life Without the Possibility: The Status of Current Constitutional Punishment Limitations for Juveniles

The U.S. Constitution contains an explicit ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Over the years, this clause has been interpreted over several generations of case law, tackling unique and sensitive issues relating to capital punishment of vulnerable members of society, namely, juveniles and those with mental and cognitive impairment. The former, which includes any offender who has not yet reached his 18th birthday, is fodder for ongoing debate, often resulting in presentation before the U.S. Supreme Court for resolution.

In today’s post, we explore the current status of capital punishment and life sentences for juvenile offenders, including a review of a recent case submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014, involving the constitutionality of mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders.

Unique Legal Treatment of the Juvenile Offender

The threshold question for prosecutors in most criminal proceedings is: Did the offender have the intent to commit the crime? When it comes to juveniles, particularly very young juveniles, it is not uncommon for a Sarasota juvenile lawyer to argue the lack of any possible intent to commit the crime simply due to the lack of worldly understanding of the cause and effect relationship between bad acts and resulting harm. As such, Florida generally holds that offenders under age 12 cannot form the requisite mental intent (also known as mens rea) to commit a crime.

From there, assuming the prosecution can prove intent – along with all other elements of the crime – the court must impose an appropriate sentence for the child. Many times, juveniles are sent to a detention facility for a period of time, followed by probation or additional jail time in an adult facility. However, for the most serious crimes of murder or aggravated sexual assault, juvenile offenders may face the highest criminal sentences available under Florida law.

Supreme Court Abolishes Capital Punishment for Juveniles, Considers Life Sentences

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court was faced with the constitutional question: How young is too young to execute an offender? After much consideration, the court concluded in Roper v. Simmons that it was no longer lawful for any jurisdiction to execute a minor. Then, five years later, a case arising out of Florida prompted the Supreme Court to conclude that the Constitution also prohibits sentencing juvenile offenders to a life sentence as punishment for crimes that do not involve the loss of life.

In 2012, the Court resolved that legislatures are prohibited from drafting any sentencing guidelines that impose a mandatory life sentence on a juvenile offender – regardless of the crime. In its opinion, the Court opined that “[m]andatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences….It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

In 2015, the Supreme Court is set to consider whether the prohibition against mandatory life sentences should be applied retroactively to juveniles sentenced as such prior to the 2012 holding.  If so, states will be required to re-evaluate thousands of life sentences imposed upon juvenile offenders, taking into account the unique situation and circumstances of each individual crime.

Contact the Fowler Law Group Today!

If you or your child is facing a recent criminal charge, the Fowler Law Group can help, no matter how serious the situation. For more information about juvenile representation, please contact our Sarasota office by calling (941) 900-3100.

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