On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that juvenile murderers cannot be issued mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole, which is the law in 29 states in the country. Qu’eed Batts was sentenced to life in prison for the gang-ordered murder of another teen. Batts was sentenced at the age of 16. With the ruling from the Supreme Court, an estimated 2,000 juvenile murderers could be eligible for reduced sentences or freedom. Those juveniles did not have sentencing hearings following their trials, which means Batts and others could tell their stories to judges or parole boards for the very first time.
The ruling was a 5-4 vote, in which the judges said that juries issuing verdicts on juvenile murderers have to weigh mitigating circumstances. Those circumstances could include but are not limited to the role of the youth, the circumstances of the crime committed and the background of the youth’s family. The court ruled that life without parole can no longer be mandatory for people under 18 but it can still be a possibility.
“If Batts is given an opportunity, which we think he should be given, to demonstrate his own capacity for growth and maturity, and reformation and rehabilitation, it will still be up to the parole board or other reviewing authority to determine if he’s eligible to be released,” Marsha Levick, one of Batts’ attorneys said. Levick is from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
“We recognize there will be cases where these kids will never get out,” Levick said. Levick also said that the prosecutor working Batts’ case will work to have him stay in prison for life. Out of the 50 states, Pennsylvania has the highest number of juveniles in prison on mandatory life terms. According to Pennsylvania’s state prison system, there are 373 inmates that fit that description.
Prison can cause youths to become more hardened criminals if they are housed with adults. Some of the youths in prison are also abused, with one out of eight juveniles in prison sexually molested in 2008-2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2009, Texas abolished its mandatory life term without parole for juvenile murderers. The state of Colorado has also gotten rid of its law.
“This is an issue that states are certainly going to have to grapple with now that the Supreme Court has ruled,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Sentencing a child to die in prison is inappropriate. It declares somebody worthless, instead of giving them a chance.”