Supreme Court rules mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles violates 8th Amendment
The United States is one of only 11 countries in the world that
permits children to be sentenced to a term of life imprisonment
without hope of eventual release. However, no cases can currently
be found outside the United States where such a sentence has
actually been imposed on a juvenile.1 In
fact, a 2006 United Nations resolution calling for the abolition of
life sentences without the possibility of parole for children and
teenagers was passed by a vote of 185 to one, with the U.S. as the
Although the United States still permits sentences of juvenile
life without possibility of parole (JLWOP), the United States
Supreme Court modified the law on June 25, 2012, to forbid making
such a sentence mandatory. In other words, it is still considered
constitutional for a judge to sentence a child to life without the
possibility of parole, but it is now also within the judge's
discretion not to do so. The imposition of a life sentence is no
longer inflexibly automatic for some minors convicted of murder as
was the law in 28 states including Massachusetts. In the cases of
Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v.
Hobbs,3 the court, in a five to four
decision, ruled that such a practice violated the U.S.
Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on the infliction of "cruel and
This ruling will affect the approximately 61 people in
Massachusetts already convicted (with an additional 20 currently
awaiting trial) among the 2,570 people throughout the United States
currently serving life terms without hope of parole for murders
committed as teenagers. This ruling pertains to anyone under the
age of 18, so even though Massachusetts prosecutes those 17 or
above in adult court without having to transfer their case from
juvenile court, this decision will also affect those
With the current Massachusetts statute on the books now ruled
unconstitutional by the court, the Massachusetts legislature must
draft a new law. A current legislative working group is already
discussing a range of potential options. Among them, some of these
include sentencing convicted juveniles to a life sentence or lesser
sentence that can be given a second look years later by the parole
board or some other entity to determine whether the juvenile has
matured and responded to rehabilitation; eliminating juvenile life
sentences without parole altogether; or just letting a judge use
discretion to determine whether or not a life sentence without
parole is merited. Those currently serving JLWOP sentences are
already considering procedures including, among other things,
motions under M.R.C.P. 30 for relief from an unlawful sentence by
correcting the sentence or granting a new trial.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan appeared to follow
the relatively recent line of precedent set in 2005 by
Roper v. Simmons 4 which removed the
United States from a list of 6 countries in the world with a
juvenile death penalty5 and Graham
v. Florida 6 which, in 2010, found
sentences of JLWOP to be unconstitutional for children convicted of
These cases all recognized an increasing body of scientific
research that purports children are different than adults - their
very brains are fundamentally different - and they are not just
miniature adults. The court quoted an earlier case,
Eddings v. Oklahoma, that "[Y]outh is more than a
chronological fact."7 Kagan wrote that
"Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater
prospects for reform . . . they are less deserving of the most
The court acknowledged the research that, not only are the parts
of the brains of minors that are involved in behavior control
subject to "transient rashness, proclivity for risk and inability
to assess consequences," but juvenile offenses are not necessarily
an indication of future behavior. Since their less-formed brains
make them more capable of change later on, only about ten percent
of youthful offenders, even the most violent ones, go on to commit
The Supreme Court declared that there should not be a
one-size-fits-all sentence, but that each case should be decided
individually. Essentially, it ruled that we should sentence people
and not classes of people or, phrased another way, we should
sentences criminals and not just the crime. It asserted that,
otherwise, "every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every
other -- the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the
accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a
chaotic and abusive one."10 For example, in
one of the two cases at hand, the defendant 14-year old Kuntrell
Jackson, was the look-out at a video store robbery when one of two
accomplices shot and killed a store clerk. This moved Justice
Stephen Breyer, in a concurring opinion, to write that, upon
eventual resentencing, unless it can be established that Jackson
either killed or intended to kill anyone, a sentence of JLWOP would
be in violation of the Eighth
Although the court demurred from considering whether the Eighth
Amendment requires a categorical bar on JLWOP, the court ruled that
"given all we have said . . . 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."12
Again, this recent line of cases indicates a fundamental
rethinking of how we look at juvenile crime in America. In 1899,
the first juvenile courts were set up with a thrust toward treating
child offenders differently and turning their lives around if
possible. However, in the 1970s through the 1990s, every state
instituted a system of transferring juveniles, some as young as
eight years old, charged with the more serious offenses, to adult
court to face adult sentences.13 It was an
acknowledgment of frustration with increasing juvenile crime along
with the belief of victims rights advocates that youth should not
be a convenient excuse for dodging the consequences of hurting or
killing innocent people.
In fact, the chief argument in the main dissent authored by
Chief Justice John Roberts was that JLWOP simply cannot be
considered "cruel and unusual" punishment in violation of the
Eighth Amendment. With more than 2500 juveniles meted out such a
sentence and with so many state legislatures specifically endorsing
that punishment, then "there is no objective basis for that
conclusion" that it be considered
Yet, in recent years, the Supreme Court has reversed the trend
through a lengthening line of cases that insist the potential
mitigating factor of one's youth cannot be considered irrelevant to
sentencing in light of the plethora of research that the
underdeveloped brains of children are wired differently than those
of adults. The court concluded here, in its consideration of the
principle of cruel and unusual punishment, that "we view that
concept less through a historical prism than according to the
evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing
1Connie de la Vega & Michelle Leighton,
Sentencing our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law and
Practice, 42 U.S.F. L. Rev. 983, 989 (2008).
2Adam Liptak "Lifers as Teenagers, Now Seeking
Second Chance," The New York Times,
Oct. 17, 2007.
3Miller v. Alabama, Jackson v.
Hobbs, 567 U.S. ___, No. 10-9646 (June 25, 2012);
Jackson v. Hobbs, 567 U.S. ___, No. 10-9647
(June 25, 2012).
4Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S.
5Peter Elikann, Superpredators: The
Demonization of Our Children by the Law, (Perseus
Pub. 1999), pp. 151-154.
6Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S.
7Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 116
8Miller, slip op., at 8.
9Ethan Bronner, "Sentencing Ruling Reflects
Rethinking on Juvenile Justice," The New York Times,
June 26, 2012.
10Miller, slip op., at 14.
11Jackson v. Hobbs, 567 U.S.
___, No. 10-9647 (June 25, 2012) (Breyer, J., concurring
12Miller, slip op., at 17.
13Elikann, supra note 5, at 110-114,
14Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, No.
10-9646 (June 25, 2012) (Roberts, C. J., dissenting at
15Miller, slip op., at 6 (quoting
Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).