WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court considered on Tuesday whether juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder, struggling to reach a consensus on where to draw the line in setting an age for such sentences.
Several justices appeared sympathetic to arguments that juveniles who are 14 years old or younger when they commit murder should at least get the opportunity for a parole hearing, but they seemed reluctant to apply it across-the-board to all cases involving juveniles.
During arguments, the justices appeared troubled by such mandatory sentences that leave no discretion in taking into account the defendant's age or maturity when committing the crime.
The Supreme Court heard appeals from convicted juvenile murderers from Alabama and Arkansas arguing that life imprisonment without parole violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The two cases could affect about 80 prisoners nationwide serving such sentences for murders committed at age 14 or younger, if the court rules narrowly on just that age category.
If the court rules more broadly for all juveniles, it could affect as many as 2,300 prisoners nationwide serving sentences of life in prison without parole for murder committed under the age of 18.
The Supreme Court in 2010 declared unconstitutional sentences for juveniles of life in prison without parole for crimes other than murder, and the court in 2005 abolished the death penalty for juveniles.
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia expressed concern that the court would be substituting its judgment for that of state legislators. "I'm supposed to impose my judgment on what seems to be a consensus of the American people?" he asked.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate conservative who cast the decisive vote in the earlier rulings, expressed concern that trial judges have no discretion in states with mandatory sentences. "What's a judge supposed to do?" he asked.
Justice Elena Kagan asked whether individual factors, such as an offender's age, should be taken into account in sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, a scheme that would be similar to what has been used for adults in death penalty cases.
Bryan Stevenson, arguing for the two juvenile defendants, urged the court at a minimum to set a categorical bar on no life in prison sentences without parole for those 14 or younger.
But Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman argued that such sentences were in line with the national consensus and were "morally justified."
Nationwide, juvenile sentencing trends in recent years have reflected get-tough efforts by states that have abolished parole and prosecuted juveniles in the regular criminal justice system for especially heinous crimes such as murder.
The Supreme Court's ruling is expected by the end of June.
The Supreme Court cases are Evan Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646, and Kuntrell Jackson v. Hobbs, No. 10-9647.
For Miller: Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.
For Alabama: John Neiman Jr, Alabama Solicitor General.
(Reporting By James Vicini)
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