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Ellen Marrus is the George Butler Research Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center. Professor Marrus also serves as Director of UH’s Center for Children, Law & Policy and Director of the Southwest Juvenile Defender Center. She received her J.D. in 1990 from the University of San Francisco and her LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center in 1992. She came to the University of Houston Law Center in 1995 after practicing as a public defender in California. Professor Marrus concentrates her scholarship in the areas of children’s rights, juvenile justice, and professionalism.
The United States Supreme Court today continued with its line of cases favoring children in the decisions of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. The Court announced that youth under the age of eighteen may not face a mandatory sentence of life without parole, even in homicide cases. Read the Court’s opinion here. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Kagan stated that “such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability’ and greater ‘capacity for change.’”
As the Court did in the previous cases of Roper and Graham, Justice Kagan relied on three major differences between children and adults – children’s immaturity, vulnerability, and the lack of a juvenile’s character being fully formed. The Court emphasized the need for courts to consider several factors prior to sentencing juveniles including “his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.”
The Court also recognized that juveniles react differently than adults to the legal process. If it was not for a child’s incompetencies such as not knowing how to deal with the police, prosecutors, and in many cases, even his own attorney, “he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense.
Some commentators, myself included, may feel that the Court did not go far enough in this decision and that life without possibility of parole should never be appropriate for juveniles. Although the Court did not yet reach this decision, the opinion did state, “given all we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision 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.” At this time, we remain the only country in the world where there is a possibility that a juvenile can be sentenced to die in prison. Hopefully this will change in the near future, and we will join the rest of the world in recognizing that children need to be treated differently than adults so they can demonstrate their ability to change, grow and mature.