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Johnny J. Lama Sr.

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MARK SHERMAN

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court debated Tuesday whether young teenagers convicted of killing someone may be locked up for life with no chance of parole, the latest in a line of cases seeking a second chance for young people.

The justices are looking at two cases involving teenagers serving life sentences. In one, 14-year-old Evan Miller in Alabama beat a man, then set fire to his home. In the other, 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson in Arkansas didn’t pull the trigger, but was in on an attempted robbery in which another boy shot and killed a store clerk.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote earlier opinions ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole sentences for young people whose crimes did not involve killing. He seemed again to be the pivotal justice in Tuesday’s arguments.

Roughly 2,300 people are behind bars for life with no chance of winning their freedom for crimes they committed before their 18 birthday. Only 79, however, are in prison for crimes that took place when they were 14 or younger.

Kennedy was one of several justices who appeared to be troubled by the lack of flexibility in sentencing young killers. Several states that try people younger than 18 in adult courts allow for only one sentence, life with no chance of parole, for defendants who are convicted of murder.

He seemed to indicate he might favor a ruling that gives judges a role in determining an appropriate sentence, “that the sentence cannot be mandatory, but that in some cases, it might still be imposed.”

Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer for both defendants, tried to resist Kennedy’s approach, preferring an outcome that would force states to consider parole at some point for anyone with a life sentence who was convicted before turning 18.

Stevenson said the court has previously recognized that it is a “mistake to equate kids with adults. And we don’t have the ability to make those judgments even if we create a different kind of process.”

Arguing for Alabama, state Solicitor General John Neiman Jr. said the court should respect the decisions of Alabama, Arkansas and 37 other states that allow children to be tried and punished as adults.

“Imposing life without parole sentences on aggravated murder offenders like Evan Miller is in line with the national consensus, is morally justified, and is consistent with legitimate penological goals,” Neiman said.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito sounded most likely to vote with the states.

Scalia peppered Stevenson with questions about where the court should draw the line.

“Well, you know, once you depart from the principle that we’ve enunciated that death is different, why is life without parole categorically different from 60 years or 70 years or, you know, you’d be back here next term with a 60-year sentence?” Scalia said.

The court has a range of options available if there is a majority to cut back on states’ sentencing powers. The court could issue a blanket ruling that applies to everyone under 18.

It could set a younger cutoff age, as both defendants at the high court were 14.

The justices also might throw out mandatory sentences, but still allow judges to impose life without parole once they consider the circumstances of the crime and the defendant’s background. On that point, several justices pointed to the apparent difference in the culpability of the defendants in the two cases.

The court should decide the cases by early summer.

The cases are Miller v. Alabama, 10-9646, and Jackson v. Hobbs, 10-9647.

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