Yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama [PDF] and held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. The reasoning the Court used in this case can easily be extended in the future to abolish life in prison without the possibility of parole sentences for all juvenile homicide cases.
The Eighth Amendment provides that "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." While deciding if life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders is cruel and unusual, the Court considered the evolving standards of decency, the proportionality of the punishment to the crime and the acceptable goals of punishment.
The case law progression from Atkins v. Virginia, Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, state legislation and sentencing practices indicate that a national consensus exists against life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles.
In Atkins, the Court held that "death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal" and, thus, is unconstitutional. The Court provided that the consistency of the direction of change, not the number of states that had enacted legislation outlawing the execution of mentally handicapped persons, was significant. In Roper, the Court held that the death penalty was an unconstitutional punishment for offenders under the age of 18. The Court acknowledged that juveniles have a diminished capacity because they lack maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are more vulnerable to peer pressure and have transitory characters. The Court noted that the rate of abolition of the death penalty for juveniles was slower than the rate of abolition of the death penalty for mentally mentally handicapped persons in Atkins and that the differences in rate were counterbalanced by the consistent direction of change. In addition, the Court suggested that the trend may be slower due to the popularity of anti-crime legislation. In Graham, the Court held that a life sentence without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders is cruel and unusual and, thus, unconstitutional. It explained that a life without parole sentence for a juvenile shares some characteristics with death sentences, including permanent deprivation of basic liberties with no hope for reprieve in the future.
Currently, 44 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government permit such a sentence. As of 2011, 2,500 individuals [PDF] are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Six states [PDF] do not permit life sentences without the possibility of parole sentences for juvenile offenders and nine of the states that do permit the sentence do not currently use it. Further, 2,038 of the 2,500 juvenile offenders [PDF] serving life sentences without the possibility of parole are from states which have mandatory sentencing practices. In discretionary situations, only 462 juveniles [PDF] have received a life in prison without the possibility of parole sentence, making the sentence rare.
State legislatures may be hesitant to repeal mandatory sentencing practices because of the popularity of anti-crime legislation. Consequently, the slower rate of abolition of permanent life sentences for juveniles can be counterbalanced by the consistent direction of change, similar to the situation in Roper and Atkins. It is important to note the consistency of the direction of change when it comes to offenders who have reduced culpability, such as mentally handicapped persons and juveniles. Recently, nine [PDF] state legislatures have introduced bills that would eliminate or limit life without the possibility of parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. Beginning in 1999, states have decreased [PDF] the number of juveniles sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Further, case law provides us with evidence that the Court recognizes a general movement to depart from death sentences for those with lessened capacity.
In Graham, the Court recognized the similarities between a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a juvenile and the death penalty: permanent deprivation of basic liberties with no hope for the future. Logically, society's evolving standards of decency would not support a sentence that produces essentially the same effects as the death penalty through different means. Because of the national consensus against sentences that emulate the death penalty for those with diminished capacity, and the consistency of the direction of change against such sentences, life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.
Permanent life sentences for juveniles is cruel and unusual because juveniles are a group recognized as possessing "diminished culpability." Juveniles have diminished culpability because they lack maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are more vulnerable to peer pressure and display transitory characteristics. Because of juveniles' underdeveloped sense of responsibility [PDF], they have difficulty controlling their impulses and are attracted to risk behavior. Juveniles have not developed critical life skills, such as effective decision making, because they do not think ahead but base decisions on short-term results as opposed to long-term consequences. In addition, juveniles cannot control their environment and are easily affected by negative influences and peer pressure. Juveniles tend to replace parental or familial relationships with peer relationships because they seek to create their own identity. Because juveniles have a transitory character and possess the potential for rehabilitation, it is cruel and unusual to sentence them to any punishment that deprives youth of basic liberties and offers no hope for the future.
A punishment is considered excessive and unconstitutional if it "makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering." The Court has recognized that retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation are all acceptable goals of punishment, but permanent life sentences for juveniles do not contribute to any of these acceptable goals of punishment.
A life sentence without the possibility of parole for juveniles does not deter juvenile offenders because of their diminished culpability. It is well-established that the underdeveloped sense of responsibility in juveniles means that they lack the ability to effectively control their impulses, are more attracted to risky behavior and tend to live "in the moment." Further, juveniles' underdeveloped sense of responsibility inhibits them from engaging in cost-benefit analysis and, thus, they cannot understand the consequences of their actions. Therefore, even if juveniles are aware that they can receive a punishment, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole, they do not have the ability to fully control their actions or analyze the consequences of such actions, making deterrence unsuccessful.
Incapacitation cannot justify a life sentence without the possibility of parole for juveniles because it operates under the assumption that a juvenile offender will forever be a threat to society. However, juveniles' undeveloped character cannot support such a justification since their characters are inherently susceptible to change. As juveniles develop "a stable sense of identity, a stake in their future, and mature judgment," they avoid criminal behavior. Because juveniles who commit crimes are "not on a trajectory to pursue a life in crime," life in prison without the possibility of parole cannot be justified under an incapacitation theory. Similarly, rehabilitation cannot justify a life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles because rehabilitation relies on the assumption that the offender will reenter society. A life in prison without the possibility of parole does not motivate juveniles towards rehabilitation because they will have no hope for their prospects as adults.
Retribution may be a justification for a life in prison sentence without the possibility of parole juveniles. However, similar to Graham, retribution cannot justify the punishment because it does not consider the diminished culpability of juveniles. Additionally, the possibility of parole does not guarantee that juvenile offenders will leave prison — it merely presents juvenile offenders with the opportunity. Therefore, a life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because it does not contribute to the acceptable goals of punishment because of juveniles' diminished culpability.
Evolving standards of decency, the proportionality of the punishment to the crime and the acceptable goals of punishment led the Court to hold that mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment. The same logic can, and should, be extended to all juvenile homicide offenders. It is unlikely that state legislature will repeal mandatory sentencing legislation because of the popularity of anti-crime legislation. Therefore, the judicial system must be the one to abolish life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.
Elizabeth Imbarlina is a JD/MBA Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. She earned her B.S. in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh in May 2011. She currently heads JURIST's Dateline service.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of JURIST or any other organization.
Suggested citation: Elizabeth Imbarlina, Extending Miller v. Alabama to All Juvenile Homicide Offenders, JURIST - Dateline, June 26, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/06/elizabeth-imbarlina-juvenile-parole.php