SCOTUS Strikes Life Without Parole For Juvenile Offenders

A set of companion cases helped solidify the slow constitutional turn away from excessively punitive juvenile sentences. In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court held that the “Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.”

Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, named plaintiffs in the challenges, were each convicted of capital murder, which means a death in the commission of a separate felony. At the time of the relevant offenses, they were each fourteen years old and neither committed his offense alone. In Millerís case, he and another boy beat and robbed a neighbor, who died after they lit his house on fire; in Jacksonís case, he and two others robbed a video store, and one of the others shot and killed the store clerk. Both were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole, under sentencing regimes (in Alabama and Arkansas) that render such sentences mandatory, without consideration of the offenderís age or mitigating circumstances.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, which represented both Miller and Jackson before the Court, there presently are approximately seventy-nine individuals currently serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed at age thirteen or fourteen. The Court further explains that approximately 2500 people are serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were eighteen. These numbers are nothing short of a national criminal justice crisis.

As the Court considered the challenge it explained that juveniles have always been regarded as less legally culpable and therefore, under the Eighth Amendment, any punishment that enacts a mismatch between the culpability of the class of offenders (in this case juveniles) and the severity of the penalty is per se unconstitutional. Furthermore, since life without parole is akin to a death sentence, the Eighth Amendment requires defendants receive individualized consideration before facing such a severe sanction.

The Court’s re-affirmation of the fundamental notions of fairness that drive criminal constitutional law was refreshing, especially after such a highly politicized term. When our laws write off juveniles who commit crimes, and especially those who commit serious crimes, those laws say more about our cultural values and belief that our kids are disposable than the character of the juvenile offender.

Related Stories:

Minors In Adult Prisons Sound Punishment Or Counter Productive?

Why Is Maryland Spending $100 Million To Lock Up Its Youth? [Video]

Photo from amandabhslater via flickr.


Sandra L.
Sandra Lewis4 years ago

Kevin B., the Castle Doctrine is not accepted law in all US States. In many states you have "a duty to retreat". The Castle Doctrine allows you to defend yourself within your own home without having the duty to retreat from threats.

Sandra L.
Sandra Lewis4 years ago

I understand the ruling. I don't agree with the ruling. When juveniles deliberately commit murder in cold blood, I see nothing wrong whatsoever with mandatory life sentences. My comments point out the harsh reality of swiftly imposed death sentences by well armed potential victims. That is the best option in all cases. The second best option is mandatory life sentences that include hard labor.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown4 years ago

Sandy-all this ruling says is that you cannot have "mandatory" life sentences for juveniles. You can still sentence a juvenile to life but it must be based on the facts of the individual case.

Also the "Castle Doctrine" is accepted law in all U.S. states.

Sandra L.
Sandra Lewis4 years ago

While I understand that we should never allow our rights to be further divided, that will also include my right to kill these juvenile defenders when they invade my home with evil intentions towards my person. You all can rest assured that all my Liberal and Democratic viewpoints turn Libertarian the moment my personal safety becomes the priority issue at hand. I don't take surveys as to age or potential plans when intruders are discovered. I also do not take prisoners. The gentleman killed by fire having already been beaten in his own home could have been spared a lot of pain if he was able to follow the Castle Doctrine.


God help us as a society that would lock up a juvenile offender for life.......who are we????? This idea is from hell...........we are better than this.

Miranda Parkinson

Sure they deserve punishment but so severe at that age.....wrong. They are still children and need guidance as well as punishment. Probably had to fend for themselves from they time they were birthed.

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal4 years ago

Do the crime you do the time....but when do those frontal lobes develop and we are punished for life? Tough call...

Winn Adams
Winn Adams4 years ago

Glad there will be changes.

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons4 years ago

either you are a child or an adult its illogical to consider someone a juvenile and also punish him as an adult.

Gary A L.
Gary L.4 years ago

thanks now if they would only over turn citizens united