By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Qu'eed Batts, jailed for life in Pennsylvania at 16 for the gang-ordered slaying of a fellow teen, could be among some 2,000 juvenile murderers eligible for reduced sentences or freedom from jail following a landmark Supreme Court decision.
The court ruled on Monday that juvenile murderers cannot be handed mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole, as is the law in 29 U.S. states.
The ruling means that the personal stories of youths such as Batts could be heard by judges or parole boards for the first time. None received sentencing hearings after their trials.
The high court, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, said judges and juries passing sentence on juvenile murderers must weigh mitigating circumstances, which could include the circumstances of the crime, the youth's role, and his or her family background.
Life without parole is still a possibility, but the court ordered it cannot be mandatory for those under age 18.
"If Batts is given an opportunity, which we think he should be given, to demonstrate his own capacity for growth and maturity, and reformation and rehabilitation, it will still be up to the parole board or other reviewing authority to determine if he's eligible to be released," said one of Batts' attorneys, Marsha Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
"We recognize there will be cases where these kids will never get out," Levick said, noting that the prosecutor in Batts' case has said he would seek to have him remain in prison the rest of his life.
Pennsylvania has more juveniles in prison under mandatory life terms than any other state. The state prison system said there are 373 such inmates. Some have been in prison for decades, said Susan McNaughton of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Many more juveniles across the nation have been sent to prison without the possibility of parole, which opponents of mandatory life sentences said does not take into account a youth's capacity to change.
The impact of prison is particularly powerful for impressionable youths housed with adults, where they may become more hardened criminals. Some are abused, with one out of eight imprisoned juveniles sexually molested in 2008-2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Monday's ruling acknowledged that predictions made by criminologists in 1980s and 1990s that a generation of "super-predators" was emerging turned out to be untrue, said Tanya Greene, who examines criminal justice policy for the American Civil Liberties Union. Overall, crime rates have declined since the 1990s.
One such highly publicized attack was the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five juvenile males were convicted of raping and beating a woman jogger in New York's Central Park. The convictions were tossed out a decade later after an adult man was determined to have committed the crime.
Texas, which perennially leads the nation in executions, rescinded its mandatory life term without parole for juvenile murderers in 2009. Colorado has also abolished it.
"This is an issue that states are certainly going to have to grapple with now that the Supreme Court has ruled," said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. "Sentencing a child to die in prison is inappropriate. It declares somebody worthless, instead of giving them a chance."
Individual states will have to determine how to re-sentence these inmates or grant them parole hearings, according to state officials and sentencing experts.
Re-sentencing or giving parole to these convicted murderers could be harmful for the family members of victims, triggering fears of having to confront the offender in court or even on the streets.
"We need to be cautious about preserving victims' rights throughout this process," said Mai Fernandez, director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. "There's a chance of being retraumatized. Something they thought had finality is now not final.
"But it's not like there are going to be a bunch of kids who are now adults who are going to be let out of jail," she added.
The Supreme Court cases are Evan Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646, and Kuntrell Jackson v. Hobbs, No. 10-9647.
(Additional reporting by Kim Palmer in Cleveland, Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Dave Warner in Philadelphia; Editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank)