U.S. Supreme Court Rules Juveniles Cannot Be Given Mandatory Life Sentences

On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional mandatory, life-without-parole sentences for youths 17 years or younger who are convicted of homicide.  In Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Court ruled that Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were sentenced to life without parole when they were 14, are now entitled to new sentencing hearings.  This ruling does not mean that a life sentence cannot be given.  It means that the judge cannot summarily sentence a youth to life without taking his/her age and other mitigating factors into account. 

This ruling struck down statutes in 29 states for mandatory, life-without-parole sentences for children under certain circumstances.  The Supreme Court acknowledged the diminished culpability of children, whose brains are not fully developed until they are adults.  The Court ruled that imposing the most severe sentences on juveniles is “cruel and unusual punishment” and violates the Eighth Amendment.  Sentencing of youths must take into account their age at the time of the crime, their unique status as children, and their potential for change. 

This 5-4 decision was consistent with recent rulings by the Court that eliminated the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for youthswhose crimes did not involve killing.  The majority opinion was written by Justice Kagan, who was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer and Sotomayor.  Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito dissented.