Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juveniles Found Unconstitutional

Today, Justice Kagan’s opinion for the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs (Arkansas) was announced.  The Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing of life in prison without parole for juveniles.  This is a great step in understanding that children are different and less mature than adults and deserve punishment that acknowledges these differences.   This opinion could also be viewed as a baby step towards abolishing the death penalty for adults, as it is a rare defendant who has no mitigating circumstances that should be considered before sentencing to death or life without parole.

Miller v. Alabama follows the trend set by the monumental Roper v. Simmons, which held the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles, and Graham v. Florida, which held juveniles cannot be given life without parole for non-homicide offenses.

Miller and Jackson were 14 years old when convicted of capital murder in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. They were sentenced to life in prison without parole under mandatory laws that did not allow for consideration of mitigating circumstances, such as the boys’ age or home environment. About 2,500 people across the country are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were under 18 years old.

The second holding in this case is that defendants are entitled to individualized consideration when facing a punishment as severe as life without parole. This line of reasoning for Eighth Amendment interpretation may also be true for adults facing mandatory life without parole.

The decision was 5-4 with Justice Kagan joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor in the majority. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Sotomayor, concurred separately. Three dissenting opinions were written, by the Chief Justice, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito.

Find more coverage at SCOTUSblog. You can also read the case’s background and appellate briefs in one of our earlier posts. The full opinion can be found at the U.S. Supreme Court’s website.

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