Washington, DC (June 25, 2012) – The U.S. Supreme Court today announced that a scheme requiring mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, regardless of the nature of the offense. The decision came down in two consolidated murder cases in which the defendants were 14 years old at the time of the offenses, Miller v. Alabama, 10-9646, and Jackson v. Hobbs, 10-9647. It is a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kagan, and joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.
In ruling that such mandatory schemes are unconstitutional, the majority explained that “[a]lthough we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” The majority relied upon earlier opinions in the juvenile context and the science concerning the differences between juveniles and adults. “The evidence presented to us in these cases indicates that the science and social science supporting Roper’s and Graham’s conclusions have become even stronger….Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.”
Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, was the 2005 Supreme Court decision invalidating the death penalty for all juvenile offenders under the age of 18. And Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (and its companion case, Sullivan v. Florida) yielded the 2010 Supreme Court decision holding that life without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In those cases, the Court had left unanswered the question resolved by today’s decision in Miller. As a result of its findings in Roper, Graham and now Miller, the majority today said, “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”
“Today’s decision in Miller is a victory for the Eighth Amendment as well as for the all-important judicial discretion that such legislatively-enacted mandatory sentencing schemes undermine,” explained NACDL President Lisa Wayne. “With today’s Supreme Court decision, America’s juvenile justice system became a little bit more humane and grounded in the scientifically demonstrable differences between juveniles and adults.”
According to the majority opinion in Miller, “Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Notably, in a separate concurrence, Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Sotomayor, expressed the view that in order for Mr. Jackson, the defendant in the companion case to Miller decided today, to even be eligible for a sentence of life without parole, he would have to be found to have killed or intended to kill the victim in his case, and not simply be found guilty under a felony murder, or transferred intent, doctrine. In the latter circumstance, this concurrence expresses the view that Graham should control and the juvenile defendant would be ineligible for a sentence of life without parole.
A copy of the opinion is available here.
In addition, the March 30, 2012, episode of NACDL’s podcast, “The Criminal Docket,” explored child sentences of life without the eligibility for parole. After hearing a bit of the argument before the Supreme Court, including Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative arguing on behalf of the petitioners, the podcast includes a conversation with Kim Dvorchak, the Executive Director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition. A direct link to this podcast episode is here.
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