How the Supreme Court killed the myth of the 'superpredator'


In jail cells across the country, thousands of inmates who were children when they committed their crimes have anguished every night in the knowledge that they will stay in prison until they die.

It’s juvenile life without parole: the practice of issuing juveniles sentences of life with no chance of early release. These inmates—at least 2,500 people, by the count of Amnesty International—are the collateral damage of controversial sentencing guidelines which even the United Nations has decried.

But in a major ruling this week, the Supreme Court underscored a previous decision that said sentencing children to prison for life without chance of parole is unconstitutional. Not only is it unconstitutional to do in the future, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 6-3 majority, but it was unconstitutional to do in the past.

The result: the Supreme Court declared that the ban on life without parole sentences given to people who committed crimes as juveniles must be applied retroactively.

Every one of those 2,500 estimated inmates now stands a chance at sitting before a parole board, arguing for their chance to reenter society.

“Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured—will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in viola­tion of the Eighth Amendment,” argued Kennedy in the opinion.

The U.S. was the only nation in the world that, until recently, allowed such harsh sentences for children. To make matters worse, in many cases, the sentences were handed out not for murders, but for burglaries, armed robberies and carjackings.

Monday’s decision is the latest in a series of Supreme Court challenges against harsh sentencing, which it has been chipping away at year after year.

Notably, the decision flies in the face of an issue Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton campaigned for in the mid-1990s, as part of President Bill Clinton’s criminal justice reform laws. In a speech she gave in 1996, the former first lady encouraged harsher sentencing laws for young criminals, some of whom she called “superpredators,” who she said are incapable of being reformed.

“They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids we call ‘superpredators.’ No conscience, no empathy,” she said. “We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we need to bring them to heel.”

In the wake of that campaign, nearly every state passed laws that would make it easier for juveniles to be transferred to adult court and prisons for their sentences. The laws disproportionately affected minorities; a report issued late last year found that blacks are twice as likely as whites to have received the juvenile life without parole sentences.

Asked for comment, the Clinton campaign directed Fusion to a recent tweet signed by the candidate: “We are a nation of second chances, especially for young people. Good news from SCOTUS today.”

During that “Superpredator Era,” the sentences peaked, even “despite a drop after 1994 in homicides committed by juveniles,” reads a report written by scholars at Cornell University and the Phillips Black Project, a nonprofit focused on bringing legal representation to inmates with severe sentences.

“I am very pleased with today’s decision,” Antonio Ginatta, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch U.S., told Fusion.

After the court’s 2013 decision, which ruled that sentencing juveniles to life in prison is unconstitutional, thousands who had already received the sentence were in a state of “limbo,” Ginatta said. “Now, the Supreme Court is giving them a chance to resolve this uncertainty.”

States will have to start coming up with a way to give the inmates a chance to get their sentences reviewed. It has already been happening piecemeal. Florida, for instance, retroactively struck its juvenile life without parole sentences last year and begin a review of the sentences, including parole hearings. But now all other states will follow suit.

The requirement that all these cases have to be reviewed doesn’t necessarily mean all inmates will be released. It only means they are entitled to prove they have been rehabilitated.

“Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences,” wrote Kennedy in the decision. “The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

What the courts cannot do, the decision said, is preclude that a juvenile criminal cannot be rehabilitated. Doing so is counter to the “rehabilitative ideal” of the criminal justice system, which should especially be true of children, it continues. The ability to change and adapt, and to learn from past mistakes, are some of the “distinctive facts of youth,” argued the court. To take that away from them is to violate the 8th Amendment, which bans “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Henry Montgomery, the man who brought today’s case to trial, entered prison when he was 17 years old for killing a police officer. For 46 years, he believed he would die in prison.

But, now there’s a chance that he won’t.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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