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.
Developmental psychologists who have methodically studied the normative development of youth have consistently found deficiencies in the decision-making capacities of youth, especially in fast-paced, stressful circumstances. Studies in cognitive development indicate that youth often lack the capacity to process information, conceptualize future consequences and engage in logical reasoning. More recent studies in neurological development, as cited by the American Medical Association, have confirmed that areas of the brain that control logical reasoning and responsible decision-making are the last to mature and develop.
Even when a youth’s cognitive capacity begins to approximate that of an adult, psychosocial features of adolescence – such as impulsivity, peer influence and risk-taking - continue to impede decision-making throughout adolescence. Deficiencies in psychosocial development mean that youth are driven by circumstances and impulses, have difficulty regulating their moods and emotions, and are vulnerable to the influence of their peers.
Fortunately, adolescence is not the end of the life story. The same immaturity and flexibility that make youth more susceptible to peer influences and other environmental circumstances also make them quite resilient and capable of remarkable change. Because their characters are not fully formed and their capacity for change and rehabilitation is great, children are a work in progress.
It is that possibility for change, together with a national consensus against indefinite, irrevocable punishments for children and the developmental justifications for finding youth less morally and legally culpable, that led the Supreme Court to narrow the scope of constitutionally acceptable punishments for juvenile offenders over the past decade.
The logical underpinnings of Graham and Roper extend to juveniles convicted of homicide. Youth, even those who kill, are less culpable than their adult counterparts, and as Justice Kennedy wrote in Roper, “cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders.” Like the death penalty, life sentences without the possibility of parole are designed to deal with the most dangerous offenders who can never be rehabilitated. Youthful offenders will likely change and should be given an opportunity to do so. The Court's recognition of the unique characteristics of adolescence that make a permanent, irrevocable sentence excessive and unconstitutional for a child who commits a serious felony applies equally to children convicted of a homicide.
Societal consensus supports this conclusion. Only 79 people in the United States are serving life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenses committed by youth at age 13 and 14, in only 18 states. The vast majority of jurisdictions nationwide (32 states and the District of Columbia) have never sentenced a child aged 13 or 14 to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Adolescents who commit serious crimes simply cannot be said to have fixed, irredeemable characters. A return to this scientifically validated view of children should compel the Supreme Court to ban juvenile life without parole for children, regardless of offense. Such a ban would ensure that children who commit even the most regrettable acts have a meaningful opportunity for reform. The Supreme Court has taken several crucial steps down this road, and it should not reverse course now.