The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 that mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole for crimes committed by juveniles are an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.Such sentences prevent judges “from taking account of an offender's age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” including immaturity, “failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” home environment and the degree to which the juvenile participated in the crime, said the 5-4 majority opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan.“At last, at last, at last, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that youth who commit crimes should not be judged in the same way as adults,” Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, a longtime juvenile advocate, told The Tidings. “We commend the Court for recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow judges to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change,” declared Javier Stauring, co-director of the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice. Stauring pointed out that the decision only applies to mandatory sentences and the Supreme Court did not analyze California’s unique law, which is neither mandatory nor completely discretionary. The decision was announced on the next-to-last working day of the court's 2011-12 term, when the justices also accepted or rejected dozens of cases for their next term beginning in October. On the final day of the term, June 28, the court's decision on four cases related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act were to be announced.In the juvenile justice cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, both defendants were 14 years old at the time of their crimes and both were convicted of capital murder, triggering a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole (LWOP). The cases continued a trend by the high court to require individualized sentencing of juveniles.In 2005, the court struck down the death penalty for those who committed crimes while juveniles. In 2010, a Supreme Court majority said juveniles must have a possibility of being released when imprisoned for crimes other than murder.Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan in the majority opinion, with a separate concurring opinion by Breyer and Sotomayor. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito each issued separate dissenting opinions, with Justice Antonin Scalia joining in the Alito dissent.“Today's decision invalidates a constitutionally permissible sentencing system based on nothing more than the court's belief that ‘its own sense of morality pre-empts that of the people and their representatives,’” Thomas wrote.“The decision gives hope to Ethan who I just visited in Corcoran Prison,” said Father Kennedy. “At last the insanity of giving youth cruel and unjust death sentences is being judged legally wrong.”Ethan was sentenced to LWOP at 17 and has been incarcerated for 15 years, during which he suffered the loss of his mother, his wife and a son, all the family he had. “I pray for Jonathan,” continued Father Kennedy, “a youth I met in juvenile hall two months ago who was given a LWOP. “At his sentencing the mother of the youth that was killed spoke and said, ‘You have taken away the most precious thing in my life. For two years I have thought what I wanted to say at this sentencing. I say this because of my faith that I forgive you. I will pray for you and that one day you may come home as a rehabilitated man.’”Father Kennedy said the ruling is also a great win for victims and their families.“It is important to remember the deep sorrow of victims of violence and their families who continue to suffer,” he said. “This decision invites us as people of faith to continue to take seriously the work of healing.”There are more than 300 people in California who were under the age of 18 when they were sentenced to die in prison, explained Stauring. “For them to have an opportunity to prove that they are worthy of a second chance it is critical that we pass Senate Bill 9 (SB9),” he said. SB9, which is strongly supported by California Catholic bishops, is likely to be voted during the summer. In 2011 it failed to pass by one vote.“We encourage everyone to call their Assembly Members and urge them to vote yes on SB9,” ended Stauring.Doris Benavides contributed to this story.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0629/lwop/{/gallery}