US Supreme Court Bans Mandatory Life Without Parole for Youth

US Supreme Court Bans Mandatory Life Without Parole for Youth

The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles under 18 violate the 8th Amendment. There are currently 28 states, and the federal government, that allow mandatory life without parole sentences for children.

At the heart of the decision is the recognition that it is fundamentally unjust to mandate a life sentence for children convicted of homicide without considering mitigating factors.

“The Court’s decision is very significant. It builds on prior Supreme Court cases acknowledging that teenagers are developmentally different from adults and that those differences matter a lot in determining what type of punishment is appropriate,” said Fiza Quraishi, staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, which signed an amicus brief authored by the Juvenile Law Center in support of Miller and Jackson. “Now, before a juvenile can be sentenced to life without parole, certain factors must be considered, like the individual youth’s background, life circumstances, and the nature of the crime.”

This decision is a critical step forward, though the US remains the only country in the world that allows youth to die in prison.

Writing for the majority in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said:

Graham [v. Florida], Roper [v. Simmons], 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.

There are approximately 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole sentences for homicide committed when they were under age 18. More than 2,000 of them received that sentence as a result of a mandatory sentencing scheme. The Court did not ban juvenile life without parole altogether, however “given all 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,” Justice Kagan said.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, would have taken the Court’s ruling a step further and banned life without parole for all juveniles convicted of homicide who did not have the intent to kill.

Read an analysis of the decision by the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Read more about Juvenile Life Without Parole.


© 2014 National Center for Youth Law. All rights reserved.