The Supreme Court ruled Monday that state and federal laws cannot have mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles who commit murder. While Indiana does not have the kind of automatic law the court struck down, the ruling could still impact sentencing for juveniles in lower courts.
The Supreme Court’s ruling says courts must be allowed to think through whether a life without parole sentence fits the age and circumstances of a juvenile defendant.
Indiana’s statutes already allow judges and juries to take those factors into consideration when hearing a juvenile murder case, but legal experts say the Supreme Court’s ruling is about more than the legal ruling they made.
IU Maurer School of Law professor Joseph Hoffman says the Supreme Court’s opinion was sending a message to lower courts about any kind of life without parole sentencing.
“They issued a very limited holding that will still allow juveniles to get life without parole sentences,” he says, “but they also sent a kind of signal to the lower courts, both state and federal courts, to be careful, be cautious about doing so, and that’s where we’re going to see the action over the next few years.”
Hoffman says the court’s decision falls in line with other recent rulings that argue juveniles should be treated differently than adults because of scientific data that shows adolescents’ brains are still developing.
Monroe County criminal court judge Teresa Harper says the Supreme Court’s ruling won’t change anything for people already serving life without parole sentences, but she says it’s yet to be seen whether juveniles in the midst of appealing their sentences might receive more lenient punishments.
“Are people who have been previously sentenced entitled to similar consideration? I think that will be an issue that will be litigated in the courts,” she says.
So far Indiana’s courts have used the life without parole sentence sparingly. According to the Indiana Department of Corrections, only four people are currently serving that kind of sentence, mostly for crimes committed decades ago.