In January, the National Center for Youth Law joined the Juvenile Law Center and the Northwestern University School of Law and 87 other advocacy organizations and individuals as amicus curiae in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. The two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court challenge the constitutionality of imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles convicted of homicide offenses. The cases pose three questions of law: whether life without parole is unconstitutional when imposed on a juvenile fourteen years or younger (1) for a homicide office, (2) as a result of a mandatory sentencing scheme, or (3) as a non-triggerman accomplice to felony murder, when the juvenile did not himself commit the killing and was not shown even to have anticipated, let alone intended, that anyone be killed.
Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller were convicted of homicide offenses for crimes they committed when they were 14 years old and both received mandatory life without parole sentences. Jackson was convicted of felony murder in Arkansas following his participation in an attempted robbery where his co-defendant killed the victim. Miller was convicted of first-degree murder for a killing that occurred during the course of an arson in Alabama.
The brief built on the precedent set by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, in which the Court held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death (Roper) or life without parole for non-homicide offenses (Graham). In doing so, it embraced a new Eighth Amendment analysis that requires consideration of the offender’s age and characteristics. Prior to these cases, the Court only looked to the nature of the offense in determining Eighth Amendment proportionality. The defendants in Jackson and Miller seek to apply this reasoning to homicide offenses.
Here, amici argued that the reduced culpability of juveniles renders life without parole sentences inherently disproportionate for all offenses, including homicide, under the Eighth Amendment. Juveniles’ decision-making and risk assessment capabilities are less developed than adults. They have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and “are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.” Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 2026 (2010). As a result, the Court has found that it is impossible to determine whether a juvenile’s crime reflects immaturity or irreparable corruption. This makes a sentence of life without parole necessarily disproportionate when applied to juveniles.
In addition, both Arkansas and Alabama’s sentencing schemes require mandatory life without parole sentences, which reinforces the unconstitutionality of such sentences under the Eighth Amendment. Amici argued that mandatory sentences preclude any assessment of proportionality or characteristics of the juvenile offender, including youth, maturity, and lesser criminal involvement, which are essential elements of the Eighth Amendment analysis in determining cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles.
Further, Jackson received a life without parole sentence for a felony murder conviction, meaning that he did not actually kill or intend to kill the victim. Amici argued that in Graham, the Court held that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole if they did not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken. As such, amici argued, the Court must also hold that life without parole for felony murder is unconstitutional.
Amici’s final argument centered on the fact that the Court has acknowledged that there is always a risk of false confessions and wrongful conviction when the harshest sentences are imposed on certain categories of offenders. Research has shown that juveniles are particularly likely to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit. There is evidence that the overwhelming majority of proven false confessions occur in murder cases that can result in potential life sentences. As such, amici argue, particularly scrutiny should be used in assessing such sentences.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari in November and oral arguments are set for March 20, 2012. Brian Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, will argue on behalf of both Jackson and Miller.