The 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” This protection ensures that the punishment for a conviction must be proportional to the crime.
Recently, in Tennessee, the question came up about whether a law punishing a juvenile who is convicted of First-Degree Murder with an automatic life sentence is cruel and unusual. The Tennessee Supreme Court answered that question with a resounding yes: if the trial judge does not have any discretion to consider the juvenile’s age and other characteristics, an automatic life sentence is cruel and unusual, and therefore, unconstitutional.
Background on Juveniles and the Constitution
The United States Supreme Court has directed that juveniles are “constitutionally different” from adults. This means in some cases, children receive less constitutional protection than adults. For instance, while children still have the right to free speech under the First Amendment, that right is limited in a public school setting based on the fact that schools need to operate without constant disruption in order to be effective.
In other cases, however, children receive extra protection because of their age. For instance, the United States Supreme Court has held that juveniles cannot be executed as punishment for a crime. Additionally, a sentence for a juvenile that imposes life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.
The law recognizes that juveniles don’t have the life experience of adults. Typically, they are less educated, have less impulse control, and are more vulnerable to negative influences and peer pressure.
The Tennessee Decision in State v. Booker
Just this year in State v. Booker, the Tennessee Supreme Court took on a question that the United States Supreme Court hasn’t answered yet: is an automatic life sentence for a juvenile convicted of First-Degree Murder unconstitutional?
The current law in Tennessee states that a person convicted of First-Degree Murder receives an automatic life (60-year) sentence. So, when a juvenile—who was 16 at the time he committed a murder—was sentenced like an adult, the Tennessee Court had to grapple with the issue of whether this was cruel and unusual punishment.
The juvenile, Tyshon Booker, was convicted as an adult of murder and automatically sentenced to life, with no possibility of release until he served at least 51 years. This sentence was mandatory—the judge had no option but to impose a different sentence. Tennessee’s Supreme Court took into account that this outcome is much more severe than in most other states, where a juvenile convicted of murder is at least eligible for release within 25-35 years.
Ultimately, the Tennessee Court decided that at the very least, when a juvenile is convicted of First-Degree Murder, a judge must be allowed to impose a lesser sentence after considering the juvenile’s age at the time of the offense, as well as other relevant characteristics. This does not mean that a juvenile cannot receive a life sentence, but rather, that it cannot be automatically imposed without violating the United States Constitution.