Juvenile Life Without Parole Decision by the Supreme Court

This post by Gowen Group law clerk Brenna Daugherty

 

This past week much attention has been on our nation’s highest court. While most of the attention was focused on the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court also handed down a decision in Miller v. Alabama, a case involving two 14 year-old offenders convicted of murder from Arkansas and Alabama.  Both were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court found that the mandatory nature of the punishment as well as preventing the sentencing authority from taking a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability’ and ‘capacity for change’ into account, violated the Eight Amendment of the Constitution.

This decision recognizes a fundamental misstep in our judicial system, one that in the world of nations, only we legislate. The United States remains the only country in the world—despite recommendations in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child—that sentences children to die in prison.  This practice flies in the face of years of scientific studies that have concluded that our brains are not fully developed at the age of 18.  In a discussion of its precedent relating to the different treatment of juveniles, the Court was clear:

. . . children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.  Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained, “they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”  [There are] three significant gaps between juveniles and adults.  First, children have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.  Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,” including from their family and peers; they have limited “contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.  And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult'; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].”

The question now is what will the state legislatures do in the face of this new ruling–states such as Pennsylvania, where up to 480 inmates could be affected by this ruling?  What will this mean for the justice system on the whole?  How will the courts go about reviewing these cases to determine who will qualify for parole, and when the juveniles will be due for their first hearing?  What does this mean for the parole system, specifically in both procedure and resources?  Where will the money to fund the additional caseload come from?  But most importantly of all, what will it mean for those juvenile offenders that commit crimes?  Will this ruling provide an opportunity for rehabilitation and re-entry into society, or will it become another procedural hurdle with little actual meaning to the individual?

The Supreme Court’s recent holding is a great first step toward recognizing the different needs of juveniles in our system, but more is needed and it is up to the government to fulfill those needs.

If a member of your family or a loved one is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in either Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, or Florida and you would like legal assistance to petition the state for parole, please contact the Gowen Group.  Christopher Gowen has been a leading expert on this issue and has been part of the national coalition to end these misguided laws since 2008.