Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory life without parole for juveniles
Justice Kagan announced the opinion for the Court in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, holding, in a five-to-four vote, that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” The Court has previously shown leniency to juveniles, holding in Roper v. Simmons (2005), that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death, and in Graham v. Florida (2010), that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. This case continues that trend.
Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson were each convicted of capital murder. At the time of the relevant offenses, they were fourteen years old. Neither committed his offense alone. In Miller’s case, he and another boy beat and robbed a neighbor, who died after they lit his house on fire; in Jackson’s 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 offender’s 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.
The Court’s opinion brings together two strands of precedent to hold that a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment. The first strand holds that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits punishments that enact a mismatch between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of the penalty. Citing, among cases, Roper and Graham, the Court explains that juveniles have always been regarded as less culpable because the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest penalties on juvenile offenders, even when they commit severe crimes. The second line of precedent holds that life without parole shares key characteristics with the death penalty, and thus raises similar Eighth Amendment concerns, most notably that defendants are entitled to individualized consideration when facing such a severe sanction.
Weaving these two lines of precedent together, the Court held that mandatory life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment. Such sentencing regimes, the court explained, “preclude a sentence from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” including “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” as well as the juvenile’s “family and home environment,” and the circumstances of the offense, including “the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.” By eliding these key factors, mandatory life without parole “poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.” The Court did not reach the broader question of whether life without parole could ever be justified for a juvenile convicted of murder.
Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined the majority opinion in full. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Sotomayor, concurred separately to argue that on remand, if the state continues to seek life without parole for Jackson, it will have to determine whether he individually killed or intended to kill the victim in his case.
The decision also provoked three separate dissenting opinions, by the Chief Justice, by Justice Thomas, and by Justice Alito, who read his opinion from the bench. The theme of the dissents is that the Court should have been more deferential to the moral judgments enacted by state legislatures, who are in a better position to determine the seriousness of crimes and to calibrate penalties appropriately. The dissents also expressed the view that the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has become unmoored from objective standards, and that decisions like Graham and the decisions today continue that trend.