Legal News
High Court Bars Mandatory Life Terms for Juveniles
Psychiatric News
Volume 47 Number 15 page 10-28

Mandating the lifelong imprisonment of juvenile offenders, even for the most heinous of crimes, is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

This is the primary reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s June 25 ruling in a pair of cases in which two men were sentenced to life without parole for their involvement in separate murders as juveniles.

Evan Miller of Alabama was convicted in the 2003 murder of a neighbor, while Kuntrell Jackson of Arkansas was found guilty as the accomplice in a botched 1999 armed robbery that led to the killing of a video-store clerk.

According to Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the majority opinion in the court’s 5-4 ruling, mandatory life sentencing for young people convicted of homicide disregards ample evidence that juvenile offenders are both more mutable and capable of rehabilitation than adults, since like most youth under age 18, their brains are still developing and their decision-making capacity is not equivalent to that of adults.

Kagan specifically cited an amicus brief co-signed by APA in January indicating that “an ever-growing body of research in developmental psychology and neuroscience” bolsters conclusions reached by the court in two earlier decisions about the concept of age-related differences in brain makeup (Psychiatric News, May 4).

But while 2005’s Roper v. Simmons and 2010’s Graham v. Florida, respectively, outlawed capital punishment for all juvenile offenders and life sentences without parole for nonhomicide crimes, the court’s June decision prohibits the meting out of life-without-parole sentences in homicide cases without first considering mitigating circumstances.

Kagan noted that Miller, who had been in and out of foster care as the victim of parental neglect from a drug-addicted mother and physical abuse from his stepfather, attempted suicide four times in his short life, beginning when he was in kindergarten.

Similarly, Jackson was raised in a violent and chaotic atmosphere, with both his mother and grandmother having previously shot other people.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Kagan wrote. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer further contended that Jackson’s status as an accomplice to murder should preclude him from receiving a life sentence without parole under Eighth Amendment protections, unless the state can determine his direct involvement in killing or intending to kill the murder victim.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote one of three dissenting opinions, countered that life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder does not represent “unusual” punishment, since both the federal government and the majority of states currently impose such sentences. He also accused the court of conflating decency with leniency.

“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” Roberts wrote. “But that is not our decision to make.”

Justice Clarence Thomas also voiced strong objection to the majority’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment, while Justice Samuel Alito asserted that, unlike in the cases of Miller and Jackson, the majority of juvenile homicides are committed by “young men who are fast approaching the legal age of adulthood.”

Still, APA and other mental health organizations applauded the court’s ruling as a victory for recognition of the vulnerability, immaturity, and changeability that characterize the adolescent mind.

“Once again, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that kids are not just little adults,” said child psychiatrist David Fassler, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of vermont and APA treasurer. “The court’s action… reflects the emerging public consensus that punishment that may be appropriate for adult offenders should not automatically apply in cases involving juveniles.”

Ultimately, the court’s decision holds the potential for leading to an across-the-board prohibition of life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles convicted of murder, according to Paul Appelbaum, M.D., the Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, and law at Columbia University, chair of the APA Committee on Judicial Action, and a past APA president.

“In requiring individualized determinations before life without parole can be imposed, the court has taken an incremental step toward more rational sentencing for juveniles,” said Appelbaum. “Should it turn out that such sentences are being used arbitrarily, rather than being reserved for the most heinous offenses, the door is open for the court to reconsider whether they are constitutionally permissible in juvenile cases under any circumstances.” inline-graphic-1.gif

The Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which is linked with Jackson v. Hobbs, is posted at www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-9646g2i8.pdf.

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