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In Arizona, Life Sentences for Juveniles Test Supreme Court Precedents

U.S.In Arizona, Life Sentences for Juveniles Test Supreme Court Precedents

The U.S. Supreme Court has twice rebuked the Arizona Supreme Court for defying its precedents in capital cases.

A third ruling from the state court last year seemed to run headlong into another Supreme Court precedent. It said juvenile offenders could be sentenced to die in prison under a state law that did not allow for the possibility of parole.

That decision gave rise to a kind of judicial déjà vu, 15 law professors told the justices in a recent supporting brief.

“Once again, individuals in Arizona are forced to come to this court to vindicate firmly established constitutional rights, all because Arizona refuses to follow precedent,” the professors wrote, urging the court to hear a juvenile offender’s appeal. “This time, absent intervention, individuals sentenced to mandatory life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles will continue serving unconstitutional sentences.”

In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rejected such mandatory sentences for youths who committed murders before they turned 18. To be constitutional, the court said, state laws must at least allow judges the option of sentencing juvenile offenders to life with the possibility of parole.

As recently as 2021, even after the Supreme Court shifted to the right, it reaffirmed the core principle that “an individual who commits a homicide when he or she is under 18 may be sentenced to life without parole, but only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment.”

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