Miller v. Alabama: Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences For Juveniles Are Unconstitutional

In the case of Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court in an opinion authored by Justice Kagan ruled that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

The combined cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs both involved 14 year old defendants convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Both sentences were mandated by state law. The sentencing authorities had no discretion to alter the sentence.

In 1999, 14-year old Jackson accompanied two boys to a video store which they had decided to rob, though it is nor clear that Jackson knew at first that the robbery was the plan. At first, Jackson stayed outside the store, but at some point entered before another of the boys shot and killed the clerk after she threatened to call the police. Arkansas law provides that prosecutors may charge 14-year olds as adults when the crime alleged is a serious offense. Jackson was charged and convicted as an adult with capital felony murder and aggravated robbery. In Arkansas, a defendant convicted of capital murder must either be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole.

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Miller had been partying with a friend and a neighbor. After the neighbor passed out Miller attempted to remove his wallet, but the neighbor awoke and grabbed his throat. Miller’s friend then started to hit the neighbor with a baseball bat and Miller did as well. The boys left but returned later to burn the neighbor’s house down in order to cover up evidence of the crime. The neighbor died of his injuries and smoke inhalation. Miller was charged and convicted as an adult of murder in the course of arson, which carried a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole.

At the U.S. Supreme Court Jackson and Miller argued that a sentencing scheme in which individuals under 18 are subjected to mandatory sentences of life without parole for homicide offenses violates the Eighth Amendment.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, guaranteeing individuals the right to not be subjected to excessive sanctions. The idea is based on a concept of justice in which punishment for a crime is proportional to the offender and the offense.

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Two lines of Eighth Amendment cases instruct the current case. The first strand of cases bans sentencing schemes where there is little correlation between the type of offenders and the severity of the punishment. For example, Kennedy v. Louisiana prohibited the death penalty for non-homicide crimes and mentally retarded defendants. In Graham v. Florida, the Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment bars life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

A second line of cases focuses on the death penalty. The Court in Graham considered life without parole for juveniles the same as the death penalty. The Court has also prohibited sentencing schemes that mandate the death penalty.

It is the combination of the precedents deriving from these two strands of cases that lead the Court to conclude that mandatory life without parole sentence for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment.

The Court pointed out three main differences between juveniles and adults for sentencing purposes that come from the first line of cases. First, juveniles have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” which results in reckless and impulsive behavior.  Second, juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure.  And third, a juvenile’s character is less fixed, meaning a horrific crime committed by a juvenile is not indicative of a juvenile’s actions for life.

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These three realities of juvenile life lessen the justification for extreme sentences, which are retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Retribution relates to an offender’s blameworthiness, which cannot be as strong in a juvenile as an adult. Deterrence as a justification is diminished because a juvenile’s impulsiveness makes them less likely to consider the potential punishment of a crime than an adult. There can be no rehabilitation as a rational for imprisonment where life without parole is the punishment. Rehabilitation is the goal that should be most sought when an offender is a juvenile.

The Court in Graham concluded from this reasoning that the imposition of life without parole sentences may violate the Eighth Amendment when applied to juveniles. The Graham case concerned only non-homicide crimes, but there is no reason that the rationale must be crime-specific. Mandatory sentences contravene the principle in Graham that the offender’s age must be taken into account in sentencing.

Graham’s likening of life without parole sentences for juveniles to the death penalty also had an influence on the Court’s decision. A juvenile incarcerated for life will likely serve a greater percentage of his or her life than an adult sentenced to life.  Life without parole is  essentially life forfeiture. Therefore, life without parole should be treated in the same manner as the death penalty, the Court wrote. In a prior case, the Court struck down a sentencing scheme in which the death sentence was mandated for a conviction of first-degree murder as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The logical extension is that mandated life without parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because they are in essence a mandatory death penalty.

In addition, there is a line of Eighth Amendment cases holding that sentencing authorities should take into account mitigating factors in death sentences cases, one of those factors being youth and maturity.

In the end, he Eighth Amendment, the Court ruled, forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.  States are not required to guarantee freedom, but must provide some meaningful opportunity for a juvenile to obtain release based on rehabilitation.

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