From an editorial that ran in The (Greensboro) News & Record on Sunday:
N.C. prisons hold 88 inmates sentenced to life without parole for murders they committed before they turned 18.
Now their cases may require review in light of a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month. A 5-4 majority said mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
It’s a good prompt for North Carolina to re-examine sentencing laws and set policies that are practical and serve justice.
The decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, drew on previous rulings that set out reasons for treating adult and juvenile offenders differently. “Children,” defined as being younger than 18, have a less-developed sense of responsibility and a greater capacity to change.
But this ruling wasn’t absolute. It didn’t prohibit a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender; it said such a sentence cannot be mandatory. A judge must consider all the circumstances and have the option of imposing a lesser sentence.
In North Carolina, 16- and 17-year-old offenders are always charged as adults. Children as young as 13 can be tried as adults for very serious crimes. For first-degree murder, state law does not allow any sentence less than life without parole.
The legislature will have to change that law as it applies to offenders younger than 18 to allow at least the chance of parole. For those already sentenced, it may be necessary to establish procedures to review cases and grant an opportunity for parole if circumstances warrant.
Some of the most vicious crimes are committed by young people. Laurence Lovette Jr. was 17 when he and Demario Atwater kidnapped and murdered UNC Chapel Hill student Eve Carson in March 2008. Lovette shot her four times. He also has been charged, but not yet tried, for the murder of Duke student Abhijit Mahato a couple of months earlier. The idea that he may deserve a lighter sentence is hard to accept.
Yet, the sentence of life without parole raises complex issues. In adult cases, it can be seen as a more humane alternative to the death penalty, and prosecutors and juries often prefer it.
The other side is that life-without-parole sentences mean keeping inmates in prison until they die of old age, when they are years beyond posing any further danger to society. The expense of caring for them can be enormous; the cost of denying them any reason for rehabilitation or hope for restoration to society may be greater. Is it cruel and unusual to lock up a human being, even a murderer, from age 17 to 80 or longer?
This ruling now challenges North Carolina and other states to find new ways to determine how long they should keep young criminals in prison.