Overview of US Supreme Court Decisions

Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has held four times that the Eighth Amendment requires individuals under eighteen years of age to be sentenced differently from adults. Together, the decisions require that sentences for children provide “a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation”—except in the rarest of homicide cases where the sentencer determines that the child is “irreparably corrupt” and rehabilitation is impossible.

In response to these decisions, there has been extensive litigation and legislative activity in states around the country. Below, we briefly summarize these four Supreme Court cases.

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to impose the death penalty on an individual who was under eighteen at the time of the crime. The Court observed that the death penalty is reserved for individuals who commit the most serious crimes “and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution.’”  The Court reasoned that certain differences between children and adults “demonstrate that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders.” In particular, youth have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” they are “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure,” and their character “is not as well formed as that of an adult.” These differences diminish a child’s culpability and “render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders.”

The Court in Roper emphasized that “[t]he reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” Indeed, “[f]rom a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” The Court stressed that “[i]t is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Accordingly, the Court categorically barred the death penalty for children, concluding that “neither retribution nor deterrence provides adequate justification for imposing the death penalty on juvenile offenders.” Following Roper, life without parole thus became the harshest available penalty for a juvenile offender.

 

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)

In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits life-without-parole sentences for children who commit “nonhomicide” crimes. In such cases, states must provide juveniles with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” In concluding that children who commit nonhomicide crimes may not receive life without parole, the Court reasoned that “[t]he age of the offender and the nature of the crime each bear on the analysis.”

As it had in Roper, the Court in Graham emphasized that children are less culpable than adults due to their underdeveloped brains and characters. Regarding the nature of the crime, the Court noted that it had previously recognized that “defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers.” Relying on these two lines of precedent, the Court concluded that “when compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice diminished moral culpability.” In light of this diminished capacity and the greater prospects that juveniles have for reform, the Court concluded that life-without-parole sentences may not be imposed on children in nonhomicide cases.

 

Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment when imposed on children. Under Miller, children facing the possibility of life-without-parole sentences are entitled to “individualized sentencing,” and the sentencer must give mitigating effect to the characteristics and circumstances of youth.

Miller reasoned that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,” and therefore “imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.” As in Roper and Graham, the Court in Miller emphasized the capacity of children to rehabilitate. The Court stated that children have “greater prospects for reform” than adults, and a mandatory life-without-parole sentence “disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.”

In explaining its holding, the Court stated:

We therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment. Because that holding is sufficient to decide these cases, we do not consider Jackson’s and Miller’s alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles, or at least for those 14 and younger. But given all we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty we noted in Roper and Graham of distinguishing at this early age between “the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.

 

Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 734 (2016)

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana, that Miller v. Alabama applies retroactively to “final convictions” on collateral review. Montgomery also makes clear that the Eighth Amendment places a ceiling on punishment for the vast majority of children. In particular, a life-without-parole sentence may not be imposed on a child convicted of homicide unless the sentencer makes a determination—after giving mitigating effect to the characteristics and circumstances of youth—that the particular child “exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.” Absent such a finding, the child must have a meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

The Montgomery Court held that Miller announced a “substantive rule of constitutional law” that applies retroactively because Miller held that it is impermissible to impose a life-without parole sentence on a child unless he is “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.” Montgomery reasoned: “Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption, it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for a class of defendants because of their status—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.” The Court explained further:

Miller did bar life without parole . . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility. For that reason, Miller is no less substantive than are Roper and Graham. Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence. The only difference between Roper and Graham, on the one hand, and Miller, on the other hand, is that Miller drew a line between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.

Montgomery observed that “[a]lthough Miller did not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to impose life without parole on a juvenile, the Court explained that a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.”

Thus, Miller and Montgomery place a ceiling on punishment for the vast majority of children. Absent a finding that the child is “irreparably corrupt” (i.e., “exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible”), life without parole may not be imposed.

Note: citations and internal quotation marks omitted from quotations provided above.