juvenile life sentences

  • April 24, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    From time to time, perhaps once a decade, syndicated columnist George Will can say or write something that does more than trumpet right-wing talking points. A recent piece on the Supreme Court’s consideration of whether sentencing juveniles to prison with no chance of parole violates the Constitution is an example.

    Writing about cases involving juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed when they were 14, Will says the judges involved had “no discretion to impose any other” sentences, and that such mandatory sentencing bars courts from taking into consideration our “society’s sense of cruelty.” This kind of thinking, however, as Will notes can undercut so-called originalism, a method of interpreting the Constitution favored by conservative judges. Toward the end of his column, Will writes that “even the ‘originalist’ Scalia, although disposed to construe the Constitution’s terms as they were understood when ratified, would today proscribe some late-18th-century punishments, such as public lashing and branding.”

    Instead of obsessively trying to figure out what the Constitution’s framers thought when they crafted the document, competent judges today consider societal developments, which are informed by science. In fact, Will writes that the high court “has accommodated what science teaches.” He cites high court opinions from 2005 and 2010 that took into account studies on the differences between youngsters and adults in limiting the use of the death penalty in cases involving juveniles.

    In 2005’s Roper v. Simmons, the justices relied in part on the differences between children and adults in concluding that the death penalty would not be imposed for crimes committed by those under 18, and later in Graham v. Florida that life sentences without parole would not be dealt to juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.

    Will argues that the social science should be relied on by the high court in finding that teenagers committed of violent crimes, including homicide, should not be imprisoned forever. “Denying juveniles even a chance for parole defeats the penal objective of rehabilitation,” Will writes.

    In a March 13 guest post for ACSblog law professor Kristin Henning also notes that scientific research “on adolescent development bolsters the commonsense understanding that teenagers lack self-control, are vulnerable to environmental pressures, and have fewer life experiences on which to draw in evaluating the consequences of their actions.”

  • March 13, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Kristin Henning, Sidley Austin-Robert D. McLean Visiting Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Professor of Law at Georgetown Law


    Seven years ago, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized fundamental differences between children and adults that bear directly on the issue of culpability to outlaw imposition of the death penalty for any crime committed by a defendant younger than 18. Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, it relied on the same principles to ban life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

    Next week, the Supreme Court will consider whether those principles must once again render a life-without-parole sentence unconstitutional for youth convicted of homicide offenses when it hears the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were both sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed when they were 14.  Because there is no scientific, legal or practical reason to disregard the findings in Roper and Graham, the established constitutional law must prevail and life-without-parole sentences for all teenagers, including Jackson and Miller, must be prohibited as excessive.

    Life imprisonment without parole, which discounts any possibility for rehabilitation, is a severe sentence for any offender. For a teenager, it is an extraordinary punishment in both length and psychological severity. And yet sentencing laws in many states make it possible for children to be locked away forever without any opportunity for release. 

    In most areas of the law, minors are treated with special solicitude and graduated responsibility. State laws prevent youths under 18 from voting, serving on juries or in the military, drinking alcohol, or marrying without parental consent. These protections are in place because teenagers are biologically and psychologically different than adults. Scientific research on adolescent development bolsters the commonsense understanding that teenagers lack self-control, are vulnerable to environmental pressures, and have fewer life experiences on which to draw in evaluating the consequences of their actions. 

  • June 2, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Anthony F. Renzo, Professor of Law, Vermont Law School. Professor Renzo specializes in constitutional law and litigation.
    Wielding the Eighth Amendment as a sword, the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida outlawed as "cruel and unusual" punishment the imposition of life without parole sentences for all persons convicted of non-homicide offenses when they were juveniles (17 and younger). The Court held that life sentences for juveniles who do not kill violate the Eighth Amendment unless such juveniles have "some meaningful opportunity" to seek release by demonstrating rehabilitation and reform.

    Terrance Jamar Ghaham was 17 years old at the time he violated his probation on an armed burglary offense. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial judge who concluded that Graham was incorrigible despite recommendations of limited term sentences by the Department of Corrections and the State prosecutor. Since Florida had abolished its parole system for all crimes, the life sentence left Graham with no opportunity for release for the rest of his life barring executive clemency. Graham's Eighth Amendment challenge to his sentence was rejected on appeal to the Florida District Court of Appeal, which concluded that Graham was "incapable of rehabilitation." In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court reversed, finding such sentences so disproportionate and rare that they could not bear the weight of the Eighth Amendment.

    That the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments extends to prison sentences has been treated as settled law for 100 years until the appointment of the current crop of arch-conservatives to the Court, led by Scalia and Thomas, who, joined by Justice Alito, dissented in Graham. Their view is that the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment was limited to outrageous methods of punishment such as torture and did not extend to the proportionality of prison sentences, which, according to their theory, was left to the limitless discretion of State and federal legislative bodies. The majority in Graham takes a quite different approach. In a complete rejection of the dissenters' rigid and narrow reading of "cruel and unusual punishments," the Court reaffirms once again that "courts must look beyond historical conceptions to ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'" Inherent in this process is an inquiry into "proportionality," which is "central to the Eighth Amendment."

  • May 26, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Jody Kent and Beth Colgan. Kent is director and national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Colgan is the managing attorney of the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services. Kent and Colgan are authors of an Issue Brief recently published by ACS called "A Just Alternative to Sentencing Youth to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole."
    The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Graham v. Florida, has conclusively established that for the purposes of the Eighth Amendment, youth are different-and therefore are afforded greater protections-than adults. In establishing a categorical ban on sentencing youth who have committed non-homicide offenses to life in prison without the possibility of parole (whether the constitution prohibits the sentence in homicide cases was not in front of the Court), the Court relied on longstanding precedent related to the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, which "underscore the essential principle that, under the Eighth Amendment, the State must respect the human attributes even of those who have committed serious crimes." (7)

    The human attributes at issue in Graham, were the unique characteristics of youth. As in its 2005 opinion in Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the imposition of the death penalty against minors, the Court looked to psychosocial and scientific research that show "fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds" linked to decision making, moral reasoning, and culpability. (17) As Amici including the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explained in detail, as a result of anatomical differences between juvenile and adult brains and differing degrees of psychosocial development, youth do not have adult levels of judgment, impulse control, or the ability to assess risks. These same differences mean that youth are more amenable than adults to positive character development and rehabilitation.

    That those unique qualities of youth make it impossible for a judge to know at sentencing whether a youth is truly incorrigible, or whether he or she may someday be rehabilitated and redeemed, resonated throughout the Court's opinion. (22) That principle led the majority to conclude that a categorical ban on the sentence was required. While Chief Justice John Roberts joined the majority in concluding that youth must be afforded greater protections under the Eighth Amendment than adults, in his concurring opinion, he argued that a case-by-case proportionality analysis where age is considered at sentencing was a sufficient remedy. In the majority opinion, however, Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected such an approach, writing that the courts could not "with sufficient accuracy distinguish the few incorrigible juvenile offenders from the many that have the capacity for change." (27)

  • May 20, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Stephen K. Harper and Randy A. Hertz. Harper is an Adjunct Professor of Juvenile Justice, University of Miami School of Law, and Hertz is the Director of Clinical and Advocacy Programs and Professor of Clinical Law, NYU School of Law.
    In Graham v Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed what it found in Roper v Simmons: kids are different. In Roper, children and adolescents were found to be so different from adults that, as a class, they should not be eligible for death. Graham found that these differences now apply in non-homicide cases where juveniles were sentenced to life without any possibility of parole. In Roper, the Court recognized what we know instinctively -- and what science continues to teach us -- that "juveniles have a ‘lack of maturity and an undeveloped sense of responsibility'; they are ‘more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure' and their characteristics are ‘not as well formed.'"

    The Court found that life without any possibility of parole is a sentence that simply means there is no chance for the young offender to later "demonstrate growth and maturity." It is that maturity that "can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal and rehabilitation." An adolescent sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole stands for the proposition that some children are completely finished before they are even completed.

    Juveniles are less culpable precisely because they don't have the same mature judgment, sense of consequence and sense of self as does an adult. They are developmentally immature in areas of impulse control, sensation-seeking, future orientation, and susceptibility to peer pressure and other external influences. They are also more changeable and malleable than adults. Indeed as stated in the amicus brief (in support of Graham) by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, juveniles "unformed identity makes it less likely that their offenses evince a fixed bad character and more likely that they will reform." And, as was further pointed out by the amicus brief of American Medical Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "the structural and functional immaturities of the adolescent brain provide (even) a biological basis for the behavioral immaturities." (Emphasis added)