Juvenile Life without Parole

As you are likely aware, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on March 20, 2012, on two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, addressing whether life without parole sentences can be imposed on juveniles convicted of homicide.  The decision should come down any day now, and the best place to go for updates and analysis on the jurisprudence of the Court (in addition to this site, of course!) is http://www.scotusblog.com/.

For commentary on the issues at stake in these two cases, see Defining the Contours of the Eighth Amendment by Stephen Wermiel, which opens as follows:

Many law students never get to study the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. But the meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on inflicting “cruel and unusual punishment” occupies a considerable amount of the Supreme Court’s time and often divides the Justices over the basic question of how to interpret the language of the Constitution.

The Court’s latest challenge is to determine whether it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to sentence a fourteen-year-old who has been convicted of murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This issue provides us with an opportunity to think about numerous different facets of what the Justices do.

For example, the issue illustrates how the Court often engages in incremental decision-making, limited to the circumstances of each case, one step at a time. Six years ago, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court held that defendants who commit crimes when they are under the age of eighteen may not be subjected to the death penalty. And the Court ruled just last year in Graham v. Florida (2010) that a life sentence without possibility of parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional when it is imposed for a crime which did not involve murder.

On Monday, the Court agreed to consider yet another related question:  whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

Evan Miller, the petitioner in one of the cases granted on Monday, Miller v. Alabama (10-9646), was convicted for the 2003 death of his neighbor in a rural Alabama trailer park. Miller was fourteen when he beat the neighbor and then left him to die of smoke inhalation after setting the trailer on fire. In the other case, Jackson v. Arkansas (10-9647), Kuntrell Jackson went with two older boys to rob a video store in 1999, when he was fourteen. Jackson’s lawyers say that he acted as a lookout and was not the person who shot and killed the store clerk, but he was convicted of murder. Both boys were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and their respective state appellate courts upheld the sentences.

Perhaps there is no more important – and divisive – role for the Justices than figuring out how to interpret for today’s world the meaning of phrases written for a very different world more than two hundred years ago. Does the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment,” written in 1789 and ratified as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, have a fixed, readily understood, and universally shared meaning for today’s world? Or must those words be understood and interpreted as they were in 1791? Those questions continue to fracture the Justices.

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