Is 14 too young to be given a life sentence without parole? The Supreme Court will decide, starting next week.
On Tuesday, the justices will begin hearing the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, both of whom were condemned at 14 to spend their lives behind bars for their roles in separate murders. But it's not just Jackson and Miller whose fates likely hang on the ruling. Across the country, 73 prisoners are currently serving life without parole in connection with murders committed when they were 14 or younger.
In 1999, Jackson joined a group of other teens in the attempted robbery of an Arkansas video store, during which another youth fatally shot the store clerk. Jackson's lawyer said Jackson waited outside the store during the incident. Prosecutors said he was inside and told the clerk: "We ain't playin'."
Miller had been removed from his home at the age of 10 because of his father's violent abuse. In 2003, he was 14 and living in an Alabama trailer park when he and a 16-year-old fought with a drunken neighbor, Cole Cannon, and bludgeoned him with a baseball bat. They then set his home on fire and left him to die.
Lawyers for the Equal Rights Initiative, a civil-rights group that represents Jackson and Miller, argue that their sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment. They say teenagers' brains aren't fully developed, leaving them less able to control their behavior than adults. They also maintain that adolescents are more capable of change, and therefore are better candidates for potential rehabilitation, than adults.
"Condemning an immature, vulnerable, and not-yet-fully-formed adolescent to life in prison—no matter the crime—is constitutionally a disproportionate punishment," the lawyers wrote in a petition to the court, adding that teenagers are "given to impulsive, heedless, sensation-seeking behavior and excessive peer pressure."
Advocates for Jackson and Miller have a growing body of scientific and behavioral evidence on their side, said Terry Maroney, a specialist in juvenile justice at Vanderbilt University Law School. "A normal adolescent is better able to control impulses, to plan actions, to foresee consequences than a child is, but is less able to do these things than the average adult," Maroney told Yahoo News.
Maroney, who signed on to an amicus brief filed in the case by a group of academics opposing life without parole, added that because of these differences, the justice system has long treated young offenders differently. "The entire idea behind the juvenile justice system is that even when juveniles are aberrational—even when they do extremely bad and even extremely violent things—we assign consequences, but we also also give them a chance to change," she said.
But supporters of the practice say life without parole is appropriate in some cases, and is reserved for only the most heinous crimes, whose perpetrators can't be rehabilitated. Candy Cheatham, Cannon's daughter, told msnbc.com that she believes Miller is still a ruthless killer.
"There is no indication that I have seen a change in the man that killed my father," Cheatham said. "He deserves to be locked away until his last day."
Lawyers for the state of Arkansas in the Jackson case have sought to turn the issue into one of states rights. They've argued that under the 1oth Amendment, states have the right to run their prison system as they see fit, without federal intervention.
Nineteen states have allowed life without parole for offenders 14 or younger, although California has since changed its law.
Giving hope to Miller and Jackson's supporters are several recent Supreme Court decisions. In 2005, the high court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that executing juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. And in 2010, it declared in Graham v. Florida that giving life sentences to juveniles convicted of crimes that don't involve homicide also flouts the Constitution. The court held that such prisoners are entitled to a parole hearing at some point to determine whether they still pose a threat to society.
A ruling is expected in June, before the Supreme Court completes its term.
More popular Yahoo! News stories:
Want our best political stories? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or add us on Tumblr. Handy with a camera? Join our Election 2012 Flickr group to submit your photos of the campaign in action.