WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday debated whether life without parole for a 14-year-old convicted Arkansas killer violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday debated whether life without parole for a 14-year-old convicted Arkansas killer violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Kent Holt argued that the punishment fits the crime and should stand.

“Society needs to convey the message that … Laurie Troup’s life — the victim in this case — was more important than the money in that cash register,” Holt said. “The punishment for this crime reinforces the sanctity of human life.”

In 2003, an Arkansas jury convicted Kuntrell Jackson of capital murder and he received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Jackson was 14 years old when he and two other boys robbed a video store in Blytheville. During the course of the robbery, one of the other boys shot and killed a store clerk. Under Arkansas law, an accomplice can also be found guilty of capital murder if he shows reckless indifference to life.

In 2010, the nation’s highest court ruled, 6-3, that juveniles could not be convicted of life without parole for crimes that did not involve killing.

The Justices agreed to consider the Jackson case, along with a similar Alabama case, to determine if that ruling should be broadened.

Alabama Attorney Bryan Stevenson argued for the juveniles in both cases and offered that the Supreme Court should ban life without parole sentences for any crime committed while under age 18.

Short of that, Stevenson said the Supreme Court should spare those 14 and under from being imprisoned with no hope of release.

“It would be cruel to declare these children fit only to die in prison given what we now know about their status, about their development, and about their potential,” Stevenson said.

Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman Jr., argued for Alabama’s right to impose life without parole sentences on juveniles who commit murder.

Neiman argued that the fact that 39 states allow children to be tried and punished as adults belies the idea that it is an unusual punishment.

About 2,300 people across the nation are now serving life without parole sentences for crimes committee before they turned 18 years old. Only 79 are in prison for crimes that took place when they were 14 or younger.

Jackson, now 26, is being held at a maximum security unit in Tucker.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is expected to play a pivotal role in how the Supreme Court rules in the Jackson case, and was active in Tuesday’s debate.

At one point, Kennedy questioned why Arkansas would provide prosecutors with the discretion to try juveniles as adults but not give judges any leeway in sentencing them.

Outside the Supreme Court, Stevenson said he was “very hopeful” that the Justices would find in favor of Jackson and noted that states would still be able to impose severe penalties on juveniles.

“If we win, the United States will still have the harshest punishment scheme for juveniles in the world,” Stevenson said.

Marge Utley, whose daughter was the murdered store clerk in Blytheville, said anything short of life without parole for Jackson would be an injustice.

“When does our life sentence end? I don’t believe he deserves anything less,” she said in a telephone interview from her Blytheville home.