Supreme Court Strikes Down Mandatory Sentencing Schemes for Juvenile LWOP

In two eagerly awaited opinions, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles may no longer be subjected to mandatory Life without Parole sentences for crimes committed when they were under 18 years of age.  This is the fourth decision inthe past decade recognizing that the particular developmental characteristics of juveniles require a different response from the criminal justice system.  PJDC  was among the advocacy groups weighing in on the cases through an amicus brief authored by the Juvenile Law Center.  The National Juvenile Defender Center released this summary of the opinions: 

On Monday June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646, and Jackson v. Hobbs, No. 10-9647, holding that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”  The Court reversed the decisions of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and remanded the cases for further proceedings. Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court (5-4) in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Sotomayor joined.   Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas and Alito joined.  Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined.

In each of these cases, a 14-year-old was convicted of murder and sentenced to a non-discretionary term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In November 1999, Kuntrell Jackson, then 14, and two other teenagers went to a video store in Arkansas planning to rob it.  En route to the store, Kuntrell learned that one of the boys was carrying a gun.  Kuntrell decided to stay outside when the two other boys entered the store, but later entered and was present when one of the boys pulled the gun and shot and killed the store clerk.  Kuntrell was charged as an adult with capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, and a jury convicted him of both crimes.  The trial court imposed a statutorily mandated sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Similar to Kuntrell, Evan Miller was 14 years old at the time of his crime. Evan had been in and out of foster care due to his mother’s alcohol and drug addiction and because his stepfather abused him.  The record reflected that Evan himself regularly used drugs and alcohol and had made numerous suicide attempts, the earliest when he was six years old. In 2003, after a neighbor came by Evan’s home to make a drug deal with his mother, Evan and a friend went over to the neighbor’s trailer where all three engaged in an evening of drinking and drug use.  That evening ended in an altercation in which Evan and his friend beat the neighbor and set fire to his trailer. The neighbor died from smoke inhalation. Evan was initially charged as a juvenile, but his case was removed to adult court, where he was charged with capital murder in the course of arson. A jury convicted Evan and the trial court imposed a statutorily mandated punishment of life without parole.

 The question before the United States Supreme Court was whether imposing a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile offender who was fourteen at the time he committed capital murder constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

 Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, extended the court’s rulings in Roper and Graham noting that while Graham applied only to non-homicide crimes “[N]one of what it said about children—about their distinctive (and transitory) mental traits and environmental vulnerabilities—is crime-specific.” As such,  “Graham’s reasoning implicates any life without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile.” The Court eliminated mandatory sentences because they bar consideration of children’s unique characteristics.  Justice Kagan stated, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.  It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.  It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him . . . And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.”

The Court notes that since it’s “holding [that the Eight Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison with the possibility of parole for juveniles] is sufficient to decide these cases, we do not consider Jackson’s and Miller’s alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles, or at least for those 14 and younger.” While the Court’s ruling does not categorically ban juvenile life without parole in all circumstances, “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.” Further, Justice Kagan wrote, “given all that we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”   Elaborating on this discretion the Court stated, “Although 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.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Sotomayor, would have gone even further prohibiting life without parole sentences for all juveniles who did not actually kill or intend to kill the victim. Justice Breyer stated, “Moreover, regardless of our law with respect to adults, there is no basis for imposing a sentence of life without parole upon a juvenile who did not himself kill or intend to kill… [T]he ability to consider the full consequences of a course of action and to adjust one’s conduct accordingly is precisely what we know juveniles lack capacity to do effectively.”

Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissent joined by Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas, criticizing the majority holding. The Chief Justice stated “Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But that is not our decision to make.”

Justice Alito, wrote a separate dissent which was joined by Justice Scalia, accusing  the court of usurping legislative authority and asserting that decisions about the appropriate prison sentences for “murders under the age of 18” should be made by legislators, not by the courts.

The opinion can be reviewed at this link:

Related case briefs and documents can be accessed directly at this link: