Fundamental reconsideration of juvenile offenders

Issue August 2012 By Peter Elikann

Supreme Court rules mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles violates 8th Amendment

The United States is one of only 11 countries in the world that permits children to be sentenced to a term of life imprisonment without hope of eventual release. However, no cases can currently be found outside the United States where such a sentence has actually been imposed on a juvenile.1 In fact, a 2006 United Nations resolution calling for the abolition of life sentences without the possibility of parole for children and teenagers was passed by a vote of 185 to one, with the U.S. as the sole dissenter.2

Although the United States still permits sentences of juvenile life without possibility of parole (JLWOP), the United States Supreme Court modified the law on June 25, 2012, to forbid making such a sentence mandatory. In other words, it is still considered constitutional for a judge to sentence a child to life without the possibility of parole, but it is now also within the judge's discretion not to do so. The imposition of a life sentence is no longer inflexibly automatic for some minors convicted of murder as was the law in 28 states including Massachusetts. In the cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs,3 the court, in a five to four decision, ruled that such a practice violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishment."

This ruling will affect the approximately 61 people in Massachusetts already convicted (with an additional 20 currently awaiting trial) among the 2,570 people throughout the United States currently serving life terms without hope of parole for murders committed as teenagers. This ruling pertains to anyone under the age of 18, so even though Massachusetts prosecutes those 17 or above in adult court without having to transfer their case from juvenile court, this decision will also affect those 17-year-olds.

With the current Massachusetts statute on the books now ruled unconstitutional by the court, the Massachusetts legislature must draft a new law. A current legislative working group is already discussing a range of potential options. Among them, some of these include sentencing convicted juveniles to a life sentence or lesser sentence that can be given a second look years later by the parole board or some other entity to determine whether the juvenile has matured and responded to rehabilitation; eliminating juvenile life sentences without parole altogether; or just letting a judge use discretion to determine whether or not a life sentence without parole is merited. Those currently serving JLWOP sentences are already considering procedures including, among other things, motions under M.R.C.P. 30 for relief from an unlawful sentence by correcting the sentence or granting a new trial.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan appeared to follow the relatively recent line of precedent set in 2005 by  Roper v. Simmons 4 which removed the United States from a list of 6 countries in the world with a juvenile death penalty5 and  Graham v. Florida 6 which, in 2010, found sentences of JLWOP to be unconstitutional for children convicted of non-lethal crimes.

These cases all recognized an increasing body of scientific research that purports children are different than adults - their very brains are fundamentally different - and they are not just miniature adults. The court quoted an earlier case,  Eddings v. Oklahoma, that "[Y]outh is more than a chronological fact."7 Kagan wrote that "Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform . . . they are less deserving of the most severe punishments."8

The court acknowledged the research that, not only are the parts of the brains of minors that are involved in behavior control subject to "transient rashness, proclivity for risk and inability to assess consequences," but juvenile offenses are not necessarily an indication of future behavior. Since their less-formed brains make them more capable of change later on, only about ten percent of youthful offenders, even the most violent ones, go on to commit adult offenses.9

The Supreme Court declared that there should not be a one-size-fits-all sentence, but that each case should be decided individually. Essentially, it ruled that we should sentence people and not classes of people or, phrased another way, we should sentences criminals and not just the crime. It asserted that, otherwise, "every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other -- the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one."10 For example, in one of the two cases at hand, the defendant 14-year old Kuntrell Jackson, was the look-out at a video store robbery when one of two accomplices shot and killed a store clerk. This moved Justice Stephen Breyer, in a concurring opinion, to write that, upon eventual resentencing, unless it can be established that Jackson either killed or intended to kill anyone, a sentence of JLWOP would be in violation of the Eighth Amendment.11

Although the court demurred from considering whether the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on JLWOP, the court ruled that "given all we have said . . . 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."12

Again, this recent line of cases indicates a fundamental rethinking of how we look at juvenile crime in America. In 1899, the first juvenile courts were set up with a thrust toward treating child offenders differently and turning their lives around if possible. However, in the 1970s through the 1990s, every state instituted a system of transferring juveniles, some as young as eight years old, charged with the more serious offenses, to adult court to face adult sentences.13 It was an acknowledgment of frustration with increasing juvenile crime along with the belief of victims rights advocates that youth should not be a convenient excuse for dodging the consequences of hurting or killing innocent people.

In fact, the chief argument in the main dissent authored by Chief Justice John Roberts was that JLWOP simply cannot be considered "cruel and unusual" punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. With more than 2500 juveniles meted out such a sentence and with so many state legislatures specifically endorsing that punishment, then "there is no objective basis for that conclusion" that it be considered "unusual."14

Yet, in recent years, the Supreme Court has reversed the trend through a lengthening line of cases that insist the potential mitigating factor of one's youth cannot be considered irrelevant to sentencing in light of the plethora of research that the underdeveloped brains of children are wired differently than those of adults. The court concluded here, in its consideration of the principle of cruel and unusual punishment, that "we view that concept less through a historical prism than according to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."15

1Connie de la Vega & Michelle Leighton, Sentencing our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law and Practice, 42 U.S.F. L. Rev. 983, 989 (2008).
2Adam Liptak "Lifers as Teenagers, Now Seeking Second Chance," The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2007.
3Miller v. Alabama, Jackson v. Hobbs, 567 U.S. ___, No. 10-9646 (June 25, 2012); Jackson v. Hobbs, 567 U.S. ___, No. 10-9647 (June 25, 2012).
4Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
5Peter Elikann, Superpredators: The Demonization of Our Children by the Law, (Perseus Pub. 1999), pp. 151-154.
6Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___ (2010).
7Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 116 (1982).
8Miller, slip op., at 8.
9Ethan Bronner, "Sentencing Ruling Reflects Rethinking on Juvenile Justice," The New York Times, June 26, 2012.
10Miller, slip op., at 14.
11Jackson v. Hobbs, 567 U.S. ___, No. 10-9647 (June 25, 2012) (Breyer, J., concurring at 1).
12Miller, slip op., at 17.
13Elikann, supra note 5, at 110-114, 122-125.
14Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, No. 10-9646 (June 25, 2012) (Roberts, C. J., dissenting at 2).
15Miller, slip op., at 6 (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).