WASHINGTON (CN) – The Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers, the divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In each of the cases consolidated as Miller v. Alabama, a 14-year-old was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
In the first of the consolidated cases, petitioner Evan Miller and a friend beat Miller’s neighbor and set fire to his trailer after a night of drinking and drug use. The neighbor died.
Miller was initially charged as a juvenile, but his case was removed to adult court, where he was charged with murder in the course of arson. A jury found him guilty, and the trial court imposed a statutorily mandated punishment of life without parole. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, holding that Miller’s sentence was not overly harsh when compared to his crime.
In the second case, the petitioner, Kuntrell Jackson, accompanied two other teens to a video store they intended to rob. It was only once they were on the way, the petitioner said, that he learned one of other boys was carrying a shotgun.
According to the High Court’s synopsis of the case, Jackson stayed outside the store for most of the November 1999 robbery, but after he entered, one of his co-conspirators shot and killed store clerk Laurie Troup.
Jackson was charged as an adult with capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, and a jury convicted him of both crimes. The trial court imposed a statutorily mandated life-without-parole term. Jackson filed a state habeas petition, arguing the sentence violated his Eighth Amendment rights. Disagreeing, the court granted the state’s motion to dismiss. The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.
Writing for the majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan found that Miller brought together two strands of precedent reflecting concerns over proportionate punishment. The first has adopted categorical bans on sentencing practices based on mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of a penalty.
She noted that several cases in this category specifically focused on juvenile offenders because of their lesser culpability.
Roper v. Simmons, for instance, held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children; Graham v. Florida concluded that the amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offenses. Graham further likened life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty, thereby evoking a second line of cases.
In those decisions, the Supreme Court required sentencing authorities to consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing him to death.
Kagan held the confluence of these two lines of precedent leads to the conclusion that mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment.
The first set of cases, Roper and Graham, establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes, because they are generally more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, and because their lack of maturity and impulsivity lead to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.
In likening life-without-parole sentences for juveniles to the death penalty, Graham also makes relevant those cases in which the High Court emphasized that sentencers must be able to consider the mitigating qualities of youth.
Kagan also found that the states were unpersuasive in their arguments in favor of the sentences.
The states had first contended that Harmelin v. Michigan forecloses a holding that mandatory life-without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment. Harmelin, they said, declined to extend the individualized sentencing requirement to non capital cases because of the qualitative difference between death and all other penalties.
Kagan, however, describes that argument as “myopic,” pointing out that Harmelin had nothing to do with children and did not purport to apply to juvenile offenders.
The states also failed to prevail in their argument that mandatory life-without-parole terms for juveniles cannot be unconstitutional because 29 jurisdictions impose them on at least some children convicted of murder, and on their additional contention that consideration of a juvenile defendant’s age and background while deciding whether or not to try him as an adult is a substitute for discretion at post-trial sentencing.
Throughout her ruling, Kagan takes pains to answer slate dissents filed by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, each of whom rejects the majority’s position that life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Thomas bases his assertion on his interpretation of Harmelin, while Roberts and Alito embrace that respondent’s argument that many states impose such sentences.
“In considering categorical bars to the death penalty and life without parole, we ask as part of the analysis whether ‘objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative consensus’ against a sentence for a particular class of offenders,” Kagan writes.
“By our count, 29 jurisdictions, (28 states and the federal government) make a life-without-parole term mandatory for some juveniles convicted of murder in adult court. The states argue that this number precludes our holding,” she continues. “We do not agree; indeed, we think the states’ argument on this score is weaker than the one we rejected in Graham. For starters, the cases here are different from the typical one in which we have tallied legislative enactments.”
“Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstance before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles,” Kagan concludes. :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 that 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.”
In a sharp rebuke of the majority, Justice Thomas says it is flatly wrong in its interpretation of the two lines of precedent that form the basis of its decision. “Neither line is consistent with the original understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause,” he writes.
“Today’s decision invalidates a constitutionally permissible sentencing system based on nothing more than the Court’s belief that ‘its own sense of morality… pre-empts that of the people and their representatives.'”
Roberts and Alito, meanwhile base their dissents on the evolving nature of juvenile justice in the United States.
“Determining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy,” Roberts writes. “Our role, however, is to apply the law, not to answer such questions.”
He goes on to note that “decency is not the same as leniency.”
“A decent society protects the innocent from violence. A mature society may determine that this requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency,” Roberts writes. ” As judges we have no basis for deciding that progress toward greater decency can move only in the direction of easing sanctions on the guilty.
“In this case, there is little doubt about the direction of society’s evolution: For most of the 20th century, American sentencing practices emphasized rehabilitation of the offender and the availability of parole. But by the 1980’s,outcry against repeat offenders, broad disaffection with the rehabilitative model, and other factors led many legislatures to reduce or eliminate the possibility of parole, imposing longer sentences in order to punish criminals and prevent them from committing more crimes.”
“In recent years, our society has moved toward requiring that the murderer, his age notwithstanding, be imprisoned for the remainder of his life,” Roberts writes.” Members of this Court may disagree with that choice. Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again. But that is not our decision to make. Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life-without-parole.”
Write Alito, “When the majority of this Court countermands that democratic decision, what the majority is saying is that members of society must be exposed to the risk that these convicted murderers, if released from custody, will murder again.”
“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,” he writes.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan in the majority.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Thomas and Alito joined Roberts’ dissent.
Scalia joined both Thomas’s and Alito’s dissent.