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US Supreme Court Considers Constitutionality of Life Sentences for Youthful Offenders

The United States Supreme Court today heard arguments in the cases of Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama on the issue of whether it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th Amendment, to sentence a youthful offender to life without the possibility of parole. The decision result in a change to Massachusetts law, which currently allows for juvenile life sentences without parole.

By way of background, the court has previously ruled against similar punishments for youth and adult offenders in the past. In 2005, the Court prohibited the imposition of the death penalty for any minor convicted of murder in the case of Roper v. Simmons. Then, in 2010, in the case of Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court prohibited the imposition of a life without the possibility of parole sentence for a minor who committed any crime other than murder.

In both of those cases, the Supreme Court ruled that, due to the immaturity of youthful judgment and moral sense, those punishments were unconstitutional and therefore a form of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. With those cases as a backdrop, attorneys are urging the court to rule that a sentence of life without parole for the crime of murder is also too severe and unconstitutional.

The decision could have long reaching implications to several cases, including those in Massachusetts, such as the case of John Odgren, who as a teenager, was convicted of First Degree Murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He was 16 at the time of the murder.

Prior to 1996, juveniles charged with murder in Massachusetts would have their cases tried in Juvenile Court. In 1996, however, the Massachusetts legislature amended the law which now mandates that juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17 who are charged with murder to have their cases transferred to adult court. In Massachusetts alone, there are 59 inmates who were charged with murder before they were 18. Notably, 38 other states have passed similar laws permitting juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole sentences for murder.

The indication from reporters, following oral arguments, is that the United States Supreme Court will lean towards ruling that sentencing youthful offenders to life without the possibility of parole is not cruel and unusual punishment. …but the official decision is not expected until sometime this summer.

Boston Criminal Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis is available 24/7 for consultation on all Massachusetts Crimes of Violence, including Murder, as well as Massachusetts Criminal Appeals.

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