Should Juvenile Killers Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole?

March 20, 2012

A detail of the West Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, Monday, March 7, 2011. The court is taking up a climate change case for the second time in four years. On Tuesday, April 19, the court will hear arguments in the case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 10-174. The Obama administration is siding with American Electric Power Co. and three other companies in urging the high court to throw out the lawsuit on grounds the Environmental Protection Agency, not a federal court, is the proper authority to make rules about climate change. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Watch our 2007 film When Kids Get Life, an epic documentary about Colorado juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in two cases today that challenge the constitutionality of sending 14-year-olds away for life after committing murder. One case involves Kuntrell Jackson, a teen from Arkansas who was involved in a movie store robbery that left the cashier dead. The other focuses on Evan Miller, convicted of the arson-murder of his neighbor in Alabama. Currently, there are almost 80 “juvenile killers” around the country, who were sentenced at age 14 and who will remain in prison for the rest of their lives.

The latest cases follow two recent rulings that limited the type of penalties that can be doled out to underage defendants. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to death was unconstitutional; four years later, the court decided the same for juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in cases that did not involve a homicide.

Listen to Nina Totenberg’s piece on NPR’s Morning Edition for background on the cases at hand, as well as astute reporting on the legal arguments likely to take center stage today. She recounts the lives of Jackson and Miller — Miller was “so brutalized as a child that by the time he was arrested for murder at age 14, he had tried to kill himself six times, the first time when he was 5 years old” — and explores different arguments as to whether or not juveniles who kill are capable of rehabilitation.

FRONTLINE took a hard look at the juvenile sentencing laws in one state — Colorado — back in 2007 for our film When Kids Get Life. We looked at the cases of five boys (now men) sentenced to live without the possibility of parole, and interviewed experts on the topic.

In 2006, Colorado passed a bill ending its practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole; instead, juveniles who receive a life sentence will have to serve 40 years before they are eligible for parole. But the bill was not retroactive, and the 45 former juveniles now serving life without parole in Colorado — including the five we profiled — will likely die in prison.

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that allows children under 18 to be sentenced to life without parole.

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