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Can a Juvenile Get Life in Prison?

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. | Last updated on

Juveniles commit murder. It is a tragic fact of life. Sometimes these juveniles are barely teens, and one has to wonder if they were capable of having the requisite state of mind necessary to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Many courts have said yes, trying them as adults, and handing down life sentences.

What Is the Juvenile Court System?

When a minor commits a crime, a judge will decide whether the person will stand trial as a juvenile or an adult. In some states, a minor is anyone under the age of 18, and in other states, it's 16. Minors often have a lesser understanding of the laws, and they often can't clearly form the mental intent necessary for some crimes. Coupled with having a troubled family life, sometimes it isn't fair to expose these minors to face crimes that have mandatory sentences, including ones that allow the judge to give life in prison. In juvenile proceedings, there aren't "crimes," but "delinquent acts"; there aren't "trials," but rather "adjudication hearings." As you can see, juvenile courts are kinder and gentler, and there are no sentences for life in prison.

Waiving the Juvenile System

But sometimes it is fair to try a juvenile as an adult, and as such, that person could be sentenced to life in prison. There is a criminal process called a "waiver," and if a judge waives the protections of juvenile court for the offender, then it's off to adult criminal court. Other ways to get a waiver are by statute and prosecutorial discretion. In adult court, there are more procedural constitutional protections, but there are also higher sentences, including life in prison.

Life In Prison Must be Adjudicated

At one time, juveniles could be subject to mandatory life sentences in adult court when they had committed certain crimes. But that came to a halt in 2012. The US Supreme Court decided in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory minimum life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder violated the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

As a result, judges could still hand down life sentences to juveniles, but it had to be after the judge had weighed all the different factors in the case. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said mandatory life sentences for juveniles keep presiding judges from "taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him - and from which he cannot usually extricate himself - no matter how brutal or dysfunctional." However, at the end of the day, the judge can still give a juvenile life in prison.

If you or someone you love was handed a life sentence as a juvenile under a mandatory life sentencing guideline, you can petition the court under the Miller ruling to reconsider the sentence. In fact, thousands have re-opened their case. Your life sentence may still stand, but a judge would need to deem it after balancing various factors. If you would like your case re-heard, contact a criminal defense attorney, who can review your file, and see if you have a case that can be appealed.

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