This is a big week for the Supreme Court.  With everyone waiting for the historic decision on “Obamacare” that never came on Monday morning, the nation’s highest court did announce a very important and narrowly tailored decision about the constitutionality of the mandatory sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Miller v. Alabama is about unrelated cases involving two 14 year old boys, Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller who were both convicted of murder and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The petitioners in this consolidated case up for review argued that this harsh sentence for boys so young violates the 8th amendment which prohibits the government from imposing excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment.  There are approximately 2,000 juveniles currently serving life sentences and this decision gives them some hope of release.

The vote was 5-4 against these harsh prison sentences for juveniles with Justice Elena Kagan writing for the majority.  The Court was divided along ideological lines with the swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy joining with the liberal bloc which includes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Justice Stephen Breyer and newly appointed Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

In the Court’s opinion, Kagan wrote, “requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”  There is precedent for this decision including recent cases before the Court in 2005 which held that the state killing of a minor is unconstitutional and also in 2010 which forbid life sentences for juveniles without parole for crimes that didn’t result in death.

With this latest decision, the Court has moved a step further and said life in prison without parole is not legal based on the century old Constitutional precept that punishment must be “graduated and proportioned” in relation to both the offender and the crime committed.  According to Kagan, sentencing a juvenile to life in prison with mandatory penalty schemes that prohibit parole is essentially sentencing them to die behind bars.

“Mandatory 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.” The Court believes that consideration of the child’s unique circumstances is necessary to fairly determine his punishment and putting children in prison for the rest of their lives doesn’t allow for this, particularly because juveniles have little influence over their home and family situations.  While this decision doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility that a juvenile could be sentenced to life in prison without parole, it does ban doing so with a mandatory sentence which doesn’t allow for necessary review of the juveniles environment and upbringing.

For example, the majority opinion specifically notes that Evan Miller was in and out of foster care because of an alcoholic mother and a stepfather who allegedly abused him. “By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.”

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in one of the three dissenting opinions, that forbidding life sentences without parole was too lenient for juveniles convicted of crimes as serious as murder.  “Mercy toward the guilty can be a form of decency, and a maturing society may abandon harsh punishments that it comes to view as unnecessary or unjust. But decency is not the same as leniency.”

Justice Samuel Alito echoed these sentiments, even feeling passionate enough to read his dissenting opinion from the bench wrote, “Even a 17½-year-old who sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a ‘child’ and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society.  Nothing in the Constitution supports this arrogation of legislative authority.”

This split along ideological lines will continue until after the 2012 election where the winner will likely appoint 1-2 replacements for the aging Court.