Juvenile Law Center

Juvenile and Criminal Justice|Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)|Models for Change

The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing

 

In the past decade, the Supreme Court has transformed the constitutional landscape of juvenile crime
regulation. In three strongly worded opinions, the Court held that imposing harsh criminal sentences on
juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Roper
v Simmons in 2005 prohibited the imposition of the death penalty for a crime committed by a juvenile.1
Five years later, Graham v. Florida (2010) held that no juvenile could be sentenced to life without the
possibility of parole (LWOP) for a non-homicide offense.2 Then in 2012, Miller v. Alabama struck down
statutes that required courts to sentence juveniles convicted of murder to LWOP.3 The three decisions
present a remarkably coherent and consistent account; indeed, the Court’s analysis and rationale are
virtually identical across the opinions. In combination, these cases create a special status for juveniles under
Eighth Amendment doctrine as a category of offenders whose culpability is mitigated by their youth and
immaturity, even for the most serious offenses. The Court also emphasized that juveniles are more likely to
reform than adult offenders, and that most should be given a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that
they have done so. In short, because of young offenders’ developmental immaturity, harsh sentences that
may be suitable for adult criminals are seldom appropriate for juveniles.
These opinions announce a powerful constitutional principle—that “children are different”4 for purposes of
criminal punishment.5 In articulating this principle, the Supreme Court has also provided general guidance to
courts sentencing juveniles and to lawmakers charged with implementing the rulings. At the same time, the
Court did not directly address the specifics of implementation and it left many questions unanswered about
the implications of the opinions for juvenile sentencing regulation. In the years since Roper, Graham, and
Miller, courts and legislatures have struggled to interpret the opinions and to create procedures and policies
that are compatible with constitutional principles and doctrine. Some reforms were straightforward; states
have abolished the juvenile death penalty and restricted the use of LWOP as directed by the Court. But
lawmakers sometimes have disagreed about what reforms are required and about how broadly the Court’s
vision of justice for juvenile offenders should extend in shaping youth sentencing policies.
The impact and reach of these developments in Eighth Amendment doctrine are particularly important
because punitive law reforms in the 1990s brought into the adult justice system many youths who
previously would have been processed in the separate more lenient juvenile system.6 At the same time,
adult sentencing and parole regulation generally became much harsher. Not only did LWOP, including
mandatory LWOP, become more available as a sentence for serious crimes, but many jurisdictions adopted
lengthy mandatory minimum terms for a range of offenses. Further, some states abolished parole altogether
for many felonies.7 Although these policies have been moderated somewhat, juveniles who are convicted of
serious felonies risk lengthy mandatory prison terms in many states. Against this backdrop, many lawmakers
have concluded that the analysis and principles at the heart of the Supreme Court’ constitutional framework
have important implications for sentencing and parole beyond the death penalty and LWOP.
1 543 U.S.551 (2005).
2 560 U.S. 48(2010).
3 132 S.Ct 2455 (2012).
4 Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct 2455, 2470 (2012).
5 In 2011, the Court also ruled in JDB v North Carolina (564 U.S. _ (2011) that a child’s age must be taken into account during a police interrogation
for the purposes of determining whether or not the child is “in custody” and must be given “Miranda” warnings under Miranda
v Arizona (cite). In JDB the Court relied on the same research findings which informed the juvenile sentencing decisions, demonstrating
other implications of the research. Those implications are beyond the scope of this paper.
6 Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg, Rethinking Juvenile Justice, Harvard University Press (2008).
7 For a discussion of increased severity in sentencing in the 1990s, see Paula Ditton & Doris Wilson, Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons,
Bureau of Justice Statistics (1999).
2 The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing
This report addresses the key issues facing courts and legislatures under this new constitutional regime, and
provides guidance based on the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment analysis and on the principles the Court
has articulated. Part I begins with the constitutional sentencing framework, grounded in the opinions and
embodying the key elements of the Court’s analysis. It then explains the underlying developmental knowledge
that supports the constitutional framework and the “children are different” principle. As the Court noted, but
did not explain fully, its conclusion that juveniles are less culpable and have a greater potential for reform than
their adult counterparts is supported by developmental evidence from both psychology and neuroscience.8 Part
II examines how courts and legislatures have responded to the Eighth Amendment opinions, through reforms
of state laws regulating juvenile LWOP (JLWOP). While some state lawmakers appear to ignore or subvert the
Supreme Court’s holdings, others have responded in ways that clearly embody the principles underlying Miller
and Graham. A complex, and much-litigated, question is whether Miller should be applied retroactively to
offenders sentenced before the Court’s decision; a majority of courts have said “yes,” but courts have divided
on this issue, which likely will be resolved by the Supreme Court.9 Other key issues raised by Miller include
how to incorporate into the sentencing decision the required mitigating evidence of the offender’s youth and
immaturity, as well as how the state can negate the empirical assumption of youthful immaturity. These issues
are critically important whenever a sentence of LWOP is considered, of course, but they are also relevant when
juveniles face other harsh sentences.
Part III translates Miller’s directive that specific factors be considered in making individualized sentencing
decisions. Our aim is to guide courts and clinicians in structuring sentencing hearings that incorporate
sound developmental research and other evidence supporting or negating mitigation, without going beyond
the limits of science. Part IV explores the broader implications of the Supreme Court’s developmental
framework for juvenile sentencing and parole, implications that have already sparked law reforms beyond
the relatively narrow holdings of Graham and Miller. Finally, the paper ends on a cautionary note, pointing
to evidence that constitutionally sound, developmentally-based policies may be vulnerable to political and
other pressures. Aside from mandates in the holdings themselves, reforms can be dismantled or discounted
if conditions change. Measures to sustain the current trend in law reform are discussed.

 

In the past decade, the Supreme Court has transformed the constitutional landscape of juvenile crime regulation. In three strongly worded opinions, the Court held that imposing harsh criminal sentences on juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Roper v Simmons in 2005 prohibited the imposition of the death penalty for a crime committed by a juvenile.1 Five years later, Graham v. Florida (2010) held that no juvenile could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for a non-homicide offense.2 Then in 2012, Miller v. Alabama struck down statutes that required courts to sentence juveniles convicted of murder to LWOP.3

These opinions announce a powerful constitutional principle—that “children are different”4 for purposes of criminal punishment.5 In articulating this principle, the Supreme Court has also provided general guidance to courts sentencing juveniles and to lawmakers charged with implementing the rulings.

This report addresses the key issues facing courts and legislatures under this new constitutional regime, and provides guidance based on the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment analysis and on the principles the Court has articulated. The report is broken into four parts:

  • Part I begins with the constitutional sentencing framework, grounded in the opinions and embodying the key elements of the Court’s analysis. It then explains the underlying developmental knowledge that supports the constitutional framework and the “children are different” principle.
  • Part II examines how courts and legislatures have responded to the Eighth Amendment opinions, through reforms of state laws regulating juvenile LWOP (JLWOP). While some state lawmakers appear to ignore or subvert the Supreme Court’s holdings, others have responded in ways that clearly embody the principles underlying Miller and Graham.
  • Part III translates Miller’s directive that specific factors be considered in making individualized sentencing decisions. The report guides courts and clinicians in structuring sentencing hearings that incorporate sound developmental research and other evidence supporting or negating mitigation, without going beyond the limits of science.
  • Part IV explores the broader implications of the Supreme Court’s developmental framework for juvenile sentencing and parole, implications that have already sparked law reforms beyond the relatively narrow holdings of Graham and Miller. Finally, the paper ends on a cautionary note, pointing to evidence that constitutionally sound, developmentally-based policies may be vulnerable to political and other pressures.

1 543 U.S.551 (2005).
2 560 U.S. 48(2010).
3 132 S.Ct 2455 (2012).
4 Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct 2455, 2470 (2012).
5 In 2011, the Court also ruled in JDB v North Carolina (564 U.S. _ (2011) that a child’s age must be taken into account during a police interrogation for the purposes of determining whether or not the child is “in custody” and must be given “Miranda” warnings under Miranda v Arizona (cite). In JDB the Court relied on the same research findings which informed the juvenile sentencing decisions, demonstrating other implications of the research. Those implications are beyond the scope of this paper.

 

Details

Author
Elizabeth Scott, Thomas Grisso, Marsha Levick, Laurence Steinberg
Date
September 2015

Download

Support Juvenile Law Center

One of the most important lessons from our 40 years of experience is that children involved with the justice and foster care systems need zealous legal advocates. Your support for our work is more important now than ever before. Support