Roper v. Simmons

  • 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. 

  • 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)

  • October 29, 2009
    Guest Post

    By Charles Ogletree, Jesse Climenko Professor of Law & Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at is Harvard Law School. Ogletree submitted an Amicus brief in support of Petitioners with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

    The United States Supreme Court will hold oral arguments on November 9 in two cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, which will determine whether it is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to sentence an adolescent who committed a non-homicide offense to life in prison with no opportunity for release.

    Petitioners Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham were both sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for offenses that did not involve homicide in Florida. Sullivan was 13 years old when he was sentenced to spend the remainder of his natural life in prison. Graham received life without parole for a parole violation at 17 years old. He was sentenced without a trial.

    Sullivan and Graham present an opportunity for the Court to affirm the reasoning put forth in Roper v. Simmons, which struck down capital punishment for juveniles. Roper established what every parent knows and what science confirms: adolescents are fundamentally different from adults in maturity and judgment.

  • August 19, 2009
    Guest Post

    By Maha Jweied, Senior Attorney-Advisor, Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; former law clerk, Appeals Chamber, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; 2009-2011, Young Lawyers Division Liaison, ABA Section of International Law; 2009 ACS Public Interest Fellow. The views expressed below are those of the author alone.
    I had the extraordinary opportunity of working on a juvenile death penalty case when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional in the 2005 decision of Roper v. Simmons. With our client's 28th birthday just days away, there was no better gift than to let him know that as a result of this decision, his life would be spared. We felt victorious-although it was clear that the luck of timing had more to do with the good outcome than our lawyering skills.

    While over four years have passed since that fateful day, the case remains meaningful to me for many reasons, not least of which was the opportunity to work with colleagues dedicated to securing justice for our client. But the case was also meaningful because our client was spared in good measure due to international law. In reaching its decision, the Court reviewed the status of the juvenile death penalty in other nations and stated that "[i]t is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty." As a student of U.S. civil rights law and public international law, I always knew that these two areas of law were interrelated. But I had not anticipated that a case with facts which were purely domestic in nature-a criminal case in rural Alabama-would be directly affected by a consideration of international state practice. I felt proud of the U.S. legal system and thought back to my classmates in London, where I studied public international law, and their criticism of the theory of American exceptionalism. Surely, their criticisms had to be checked. But of course, a countervailing set of criticisms from domestic jurists immediately surfaced. These criticisms-which appeared more like xenophobia than American exceptionalism-gave me pause. How could looking outward and considering other countries' practices be considered a weakness when we pride ourselves in being a country of immigrants?