Mandatory vs. Discretionary Life without Parole Sentences
These sentences are required by law for convictions of certain offenses, as designated by a legislature. Mandatory sentences must be imposed regardless of a judge’s opinion or, in many states, regardless of the age of the defendant. In 2012, the US Supreme Court deemed mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional. Before 2012, judges often went on record noting they legally had to impose life sentences, but thought the juvenile deserved a lesser sentence. Before sentencing a 15-year-old accomplice to a murder case, Cook County Associate Judge Thomas Dywer said:
“And on the verdict of guilty of first degree murder … I sentence you to a term of natural life in the Illinois Department of Corrections … That is the sentence that I am mandated by law to impose. If I had my discretion, I would impose another sentence, but that is mandated by law.” (Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children, 2008.)
In the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision to abolish mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences, the United States Supreme Court held that:
“Children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. Their ‘lack of maturity’ and ‘underdeveloped sense of responsibility’ lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. They are more vulnerable … to negative influences and outside pressures, including from their family and peers; they have limited ‘contro[l] over their own environment’ and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. … because a child’s character is not as ‘well formed’ as an adult’s, his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions are less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].’”
These sentence are chosen by a judge after they’ve considered the defendant’s mitigating factors, role in the crime, and potential for rehabilitation.
In the 2015 Montgomery v. Louisiana decision, the Court concluded that life without parole sentences should be “uncommon” and reserved only for rare occasions.