Juvenile Sentencing Schemes after Miller v. Alabama


By John Mills and Jennifer Breen

The Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama continues to create ripple effects throughout the nation’s legal system, several years after it was decided. The narrow holding of Miller was that the Eighth Amendment requires sentencers to individually consider the impact of youth and exercise discretion before sentencing juveniles to life without parole.  Last week, the Supreme Court, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, agreed to review whether Miller’s retroactivity in state court presents a federal question and whether Miller should be applied retroactively to individuals who were previously sentenced to mandatory life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. A number of states, including Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming, have applied the federal standard and held that Miller should apply retroactively.  Some states, including Michigan and, arguably, Louisiana, have addressed Miller’s retroactivity purely as a matter of state law.  The Court’s decision in Montgomery will likely settle both retroactivity questions.

But Miller’s reach is already extending beyond mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, as both courts and legislatures begin to implement its broad commands. As we have recently argued, Miller requires courts to consider the basic fact that they are dealing with a child.  Because Miller addressed sentencing, its narrowest holding applies only to sentencing.

But the import of Miller is much broader.  Miller mandates the exercise of discretion in our criminal justice system, at least at sentencing, to act on the common sense notion that “every parent knows”: children have unique limitations and strengths, including a unique capacity for rehabilitation.  We know that children are not the same as adults. We know that children lack many of the cognitive skills they need to understand the decisions they make—including those involved in court proceedings themselves—simply because their brains haven’t yet gotten to that stage of development. We know that children live in environments not of their own choosing and that those home environments run the spectrum from supportive to abusive, but that children have no control over any of them. We know that cycling kids through the criminal justice system has a dramatic and independently harmful effect on kids, most of whose behavior could be better addressed in a non-criminal context. We know that children can be rehabilitated.

Until recently, however, state policies have ignored this growing body of knowledge  (as well as plain old common sense) and have treated children accused of having committed a crime as though they were adults in smaller clothes. There were many reasons for the increasing willingness of states to pretend that children are adults. The now discredited “Superpredator” myth—forcefully advanced by political scientist John DiIulio—played a major role. While the theory has been discredited, the policies it spurred remain in place. Once in place, policies are sticky things and it can be hard for state legislatures to pursue policies that seem “soft” on crime, even when the “evidence” for the policy is now accepted to be the junk social science it was.

Now, however, the winds seem to be shifting as more and more states pursue those necessary policy changes that would recognize the fundamental difference—both Constitutionally and biologically—between a fourteen-year-old and a forty-four-year-old defendant. Only a small minority of states exercise no discretion in charging and sentencing children.  These outlier states run afoul of Miller’s mandate and, therefore, require reform.

Stakeholders increasingly agree that the principles underlying Miller require broad changes in how we go about treating our children as they move through the criminal justice system. Nevada and Illinois are considering banning life without parole sentences for juveniles, Connecticut is contemplating major revisions to its juvenile justice system like programs providing for a “second look” at the sentences imposed on juveniles, and Iowa recently struck down all mandatory minimums. Additionally, new trial defense guidelines were just released for attorneys representing children facing possible life sentences. The Florida State Supreme Court just issued several rulings that highlight the distinct needs of juveniles in the criminal justice system. The decisions mandate resentencing in hundreds of cases where defendants were given extreme sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

More importantly, unlike the initial wave of policy changes that treated kids like adults, there are many sound reasons for treating children as such in our justice system. One of those reasons, however, is certainly the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller. That decision made clear that as far as the Constitution is concerned, children have a right to be treated like children and that we violate those rights when we pretend they are anything else.

But we believe that is a bare minimum interpretation of Miller and that complying with the mandate of Miller—and common sense—requires courts to treat children as children in every aspect of their interaction with the criminal justice system. Miller focuses on sentencing, but what else does its logic require? States are beginning to answer that question for themselves and we believe—and hope—we are just beginning to see the full impact of Miller.

John Mills is a principal attorney at The Phillips Black Project. 

Jennifer Breen studies law at Cornell Law School

The authors’ recently published law review article, upon which this post is based, Mandating Discretion: Juvenile Sentencing Schemes after Miller v. Alabama, is available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2579947

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