On June 25th, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that life in prison without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile is “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The holding will have significant ramifications for Pennsylvania, which currently houses approximatley 480 people who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, were decided as one under the name Miller v. Alabama. They are the third (and fourth) in a series of Supreme Court decisions that limit the sentencing options nationwide for crimes committed as a juvenile. The first, Roper v. Simmons (2005) outlawed capital punishment for crimes committed as a juvenile; the second, Graham v. Florida (2010) forbade life in prison without parole for offenses other than homicide.
Both Miller and Jackson involve 14 year-olds found guilty of murder. The key difference is that Jackson did not actually commit a murder, nor did he intend for anyone to get hurt. However, a store clerk was killed when Jackson and two others robbed a video store in Arkansas, making him guilty of Felony Murder. In both cases, the Petitioners were tried as adults and sentenced to life without parole under the states’ mandatory sentencing guidelines.
In her majority opinion, Kagan refers to state laws that “mandated each juvenile (convicted of murder) die in prison even if the judge or jury would have thought that his youth and…the nature of his crime made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate.” Kagan and four other justices found these laws and sentencing schemes to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishment, citing the finality of the “without parole” distinction and the lack of discretion in the sentencing process.
Given the individual Justices’ ideologies, the way the Court voted is not a surprise. Agreeing with Kagan are Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsburg, making up the liberal side of the Court, and Justice Kennedy, the ever-important “swing vote.” Dissenting is Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, the Court’s conservative base. Unsurprisingly, all of the Justices with the exception of Roberts voted the same way in Graham, and the five current Justices who served on the Court for Roper voted the same way in that case.
Even though the decision in Miller bans juvenile life without parole effective immediately, it must be noted that juvenile offenders still can be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Additionally, it is not clear whether the decision is retroactive. If it is, it would give new hope to offenders throughout the country sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile. This does not mean that these people will be released now. Instead, it merely means that they will have the right to apply for parole and have their applications reviewed in a meaningful way.
Contact an experienced attorney at Fairlie & Lippy if you or someone you know have been charged with a crime as a juvenile.