U.S. Supreme Court holds that Mandatory Life without Parole Sentences for Juveniles Convicted of Homicide Violate the Eighth Amendment

The decision in Miller v. Alabama/Jackson v. Hobbs is 5-4 with the opinion by Justice Kagan.  Justice Alito read his dissent from the bench.  The slip opinion is available here.  I’ll add more as soon as I read it.

UPDATE:  As usual in juvenile justice cases, Justice Kennedy was the swing vote.  Justice Kagan was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.  Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissent, in which Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined.

Although there were concerns that this decision would be limited only to younger adolescents (those fourteen and under, for instance), my quick read suggests that it extends to ALL juveniles (anyone under the age of eighteen) in its holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide violate the Eighth Amendment.  This does not mean that no juvenile convicted of homicide may be sentenced to LWOP but that state statutes may not mandate such a sentence.  The Court notes, however, that “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.” (emphasis added). In other words, JLWOP sentences may still be imposed, but they are likely to be utilized only on rare occasions.  For Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were both fourteen at the time of their crimes,  this means that their LWOP sentences are reversed and their cases remanded for resentencing that must take into consideration the specific circumstances and qualities of these two juveniles.

As expected, the decision relies on the precedent of Roper v. Simmons (holding that the death penalty for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment) and Graham v. Florida (holding that JLWOP sentences for non-homicides violate the Eighth Amendment).  Significantly, given the recent emphasis in J.D.B. v. North Carolina on “common sense” understandings of the differences between children and adults, footnote 5 states, “The evidence presented to us in these cases indicates that the science and social science supporting Roper’s and Graham’s conclusions have become even stronger.”(emphasis added).

In a central statement from the opinion, Justice Kagan acknowledges that while Graham was limited to non-homicides, “none of what [the opinion] said about children — about their distinctive (and transitory) mental traits and environmental vulnterabilities — is crime-specific.  Those features are evident in the same way, and to the same degree, when (as in both cases here) a botched robbery turns into a killing.  So Graham’s reasoning implicates any life-without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, even as its categorical bar relates only to nonhomicide offenses.”

Thus, the Court today ends the practice of mandatory JLWOP sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide and requires individualized consideration before imposing life-without-parole.  The United States remains, however, the only country in the world that permits youth to be sentenced to die in prison.  The opinion concludes with the following:

Graham, Roper, 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. We accordingly reverse the judgments of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and remand the cases for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

More analysis to follow.


Interesting and potentially significant concurrence by Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Sotomayor): one of the main factual differences between Jackson’s case and Miller’s case was that Jackson was convicted under the theory of felony murder (he aided and abetted the murder) while Miller was the primary actor in the death of his neighbor.  Thus, it is potentially significant that Justice Breyer writes separately to emphasize that if the state of Arkansas persists in seeking a LWOP sentence for Jackson, it should have the burden to demonstrate that Jackson shared the “intent to kill” the robbery victim.  Justice Breyer, in essence, proposes a change in felony-murder doctrine for juvenile offenders, though because it is a concurring opinion and not the majority opinion, it is not binding precedent.

UPDATE #3: Where do we go from here?

The big unknown for those of us in the field is what Miller v. Alabama will mean for those 2500 people serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, some as young as thirteen.  Nearly two-thirds of the states (28 states and the federal government) make a life-without-parole term mandatory for some juveniles convicted of murder in adult court.  Approximately 2100 of those serving LWOP were sentenced under mandatory — as opposed to discretionary — sentencing schemes.  The states with the greatest number of these prisoners are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida (for an in-depth look at the life experiences of nearly 1600 of those currently serving JLWOP, check out a report released by the Sentencing Project in March based on a national survey, “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers”).

One of the first questions that come to mind is whether the decision applies retroactively. According to some appellate law experts, today’s decision should be retroactive, particularly given that one of the cases was a post-conviction state habeas case.  This doesn’t mean, however, that state courts can’t find a way to foreclose retroactivity.  Lawyers with pending appeals for juveniles in mandatory LWOP states should immediately amend them to include an Eighth Amendment claim under today’s opinion; otherwise, there could be a risk of a procedural bar.

If you are heading into a first degree murder trial with a juvenile client in a mandatory LWOP state, one can argue that there is no available punishment that is both statutorily authorized and constitutionally permissible.  Before the effects of the decision are determined, this may be an ideal time to enter into plea negotiations with the prosecutor in such cases.

If the decision does apply retroactively and there is a sentencing rehearing, as ordered by the Court for Miller and Jackson, what would the hearing look like?  It seems that the juvenile should be able to present mitigating evidence of lessened culpability and capacity for change in support of shortened sentences and the possibility for release, but none of the specifics (or the generalities for that matter) are clear.  There is also the question of whether long term-of-years sentences (40, 50, 60 years) that are in effect life sentences will also be impacted by this decision, a question that has been answered state-by-state in the context of JLWOP for non-homicides since Graham.  And there is the likelihood that state legislatures will get busy amending their mandatory LWOP laws to allow for parole-eligible sentences for juveniles.

In regard to the potential reach of the decision, I spoke this morning with the North Carolina Juvenile Defender, Eric Zogry, and we discussed the possibility that mandatory transfer provisions (i.e., mandating transfer from juvenile to adult court for certain categories of crimes) may also be challenged in light of this decision.  Both the majority and the dissenters discuss state transfer statutes, disagreeing as to the relevance of the fact that juvenile offenders must first be transferred into adult court before being subject to mandatory LWOP sentencing after conviction (the dissent argues that this connection between statutory schemes evinces a deliberate intent on the part of law makers to expose juveniles who are charged with homicide and transferred to adult court to the possibility of LWOP).  The argument to extend Miller to statutes allowing for mandatory transfer would be that if individual characteristics must be considered prior to imposing any sentence upon a juvenile offender, then this same individualized consideration of the facts and seriousness of the case as well as the youth’s age, maturity, intellectual functioning, prior record, prior attempts to rehabilitate, and family background must be made prior to transferring a case from delinquency court to adult criminal court.

UPDATE #4: The Dissenters

Chief Justice Roberts is joined in his dissent by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, with Thomas and Alito each also dissenting separately and with Scalia joining them both.

As in Roper and Graham, the dissenters’ main contention is that the majority has legislated from the bench, given that most states allow for mandatory JLWOP and that it is not “unusual” for a juvenile murderer to be sentenced to LWOP (while there are 2100 prisoners serving JLWOP for homicide, only 123 are serving LWOP for non-homicides, which was the sentencing practice prohibited two years ago in Graham).

C.J. Roberts additionally observes that “decency is not the same as leniency,” and that a “mature society” may conclude that juveniles convicted of “the most heinous murders” should be “remov[ed]…from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency.”  This sentiment — that the majority’s decision is premised on its own sense of morality and on its subjective values and beliefs rather than precedent — is one that was also expressed in Roper and Graham.   

As for the question of whether Miller is merely a waystation leading to a complete overturn of LWOP for all juveniles in all instances, the Chief Justice does not mince words:

Indeed, the Court’s gratuitous prediction [that discretionary LWOP sentences will be uncommon] appears to be nothing other than an invitation to overturn life without parole sentences imposed by juries and trial judges. If that invitation is widely accepted and such sentences for juvenile offenders do in fact become “uncommon,” the Court will have bootstrapped its way to declaring that the Eighth Amendment absolutely prohibits them.

This process has no discernible end point—or at least none consistent with our Nation’s legal traditions. Roper and Graham attempted to limit their reasoning to the circumstances they addressed—Roper to the death penalty, and Graham to nonhomicide crimes. Having cast aside those limits, the Court cannot now offer a credible substitute, and does not even try. After all, the Court tells us, “none of what [Graham] said about children . . . is crime- specific.” Ante, at 10. The principle behind today’s decision seems to be only that because juveniles are different from adults, they must be sentenced differently. See ante, at 14–17. There is no clear reason that principle would not bar all mandatory sentences for juveniles, or any juvenile sentence as harsh as what a similarly situated adult would receive.  Unless confined, the only stopping point for the Court’s analysis would be never permitting juvenile offenders to be tried as adults.  Learning that an Amendment that bars only “unusual” punishments requires the abolition of this uniformly established practice would be startling indeed.

In the dissent by Justice Thomas, he emphasizes that the Court’s decision flies in the face of the “original understanding” of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, which, as he has argued previously, was intended only to prohibit “tortuous methods of punishment.”

The dissent by Justice Alito, who read parts of it from the bench, echoes all these sentiments, concluding with the ominous warning, “Unless our cases change course, we will continue to march toward some vision of evolutionary culmination that the Court has not yet disclosed.  The Constitution does not authorize us to take the country on this journey.”

And with that, I will close, although I anticipate posting further analysis and commentary in the days to come.

Please add your reactions, questions, and thoughts about the decision in the comments!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Adult Court, Analysis, Case Law, Miller v. Alabama, Sentencing, U.S. Supreme Court. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to U.S. Supreme Court holds that Mandatory Life without Parole Sentences for Juveniles Convicted of Homicide Violate the Eighth Amendment

  1. Cynthia Godsoe says:

    Thanks for the comprehensive and clear synopsis Tamar. This is an exciting time in juvenile justice as the scientific and “common sense” reasoning first outlined in Roper continues to be applied to new situations. Hopefully these conclusions–about juveniles’ diminished culpability and greater potential for rehabilitation–can inform courts and legislatures beyond the 8th Amendment context so that we cna move towards a genuinely just juvenile justice system.

  2. tbirckhe says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Cynthia. I’m reading the opinion again this morning, and I’m struck by the impassioned tone of Justice Kagan’s language. She sums up the decision beautifully here:

    “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and conse- quences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth—for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. See, e.g., Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 27) (“[T]he features that distinguish juveniles from adults also put them at a significant disadvantage in criminal proceedings”); J. D. B. v. North Carolina, 564 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 5–6) (discussing children’s responses to interrogation). And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.”

  3. tbirckhe says:

    Many thanks to Professor Doug Berman of the wonderful Sentencing Law & Policy Blog (included in my list of Links and Resources) for mentioning this post today in his summary of resources available in the wake of Miller v. Alabama:


  4. tbirckhe says:

    Thanks to Professor Scott Lemieux of the Lawyers, Guns, and Money Blog for the link back to this post when stating that the Miller decision had been “well covered elsewhere”:


  5. tbirckhe says:

    Thanks for the shout-out from Jamie Markham of the UNC School of Government, who mentioned the Juvenile Justice Blog in his post on Miller v. Alabama on the North Carolina Criminal Law Blog: