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Juvenile Punishment – Mandatory Life Without Parole Violates Eighth Amendment

Evan Miller v. Alabama, USSC No. 10-9646 / Kuntrell Jackson v. Hobbs, No. 10-9647, 6/25/12,  reversing 63 So. 3d 676 (Ala. Crim. App. 2010)

The two 14-year-old offenders in these cases were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In neither case did the sentencing authority have any discretion to impose a different punishment. State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate. Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s “lessened culpability” and greater “capacity for change,” Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 17, 23), and runs afoul of our cases’ requirement of individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties. We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”

In light of Graham’s reasoning, these decisions too show the flaws of imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juvenile homicide offenders. Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it. …

So Graham and Roper and our individualized sentencing cases alike teach that in imposing a State’s harshest penalties, a sentencer misses too much if he treats every child as an adult. To recap: 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. …

We therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. Cf. Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 24) (“A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom,” but must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation”). 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.” Roper, 543 U. S., at 573; Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17). 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.8

Strictly speaking, the decision invalidates only mandatory LWOP schemes. See e.g., footnote (rejecting Arkansas’ last-minute argument that Jackson’s sentence was in fact discretionary, given that state courts treated it as mandatory. It is, the Court stresses, the mandatory nature of the schemes here that “prevent the sentencer from taking account of … central considerations,” namely the youthfulness of the offender. Thus, as the blockquote above indicates, the Court explicitly declines to decide whether “a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles, or at least for those 14 and younger” is constitutionally required. Where, then, does that leave Wisconsin, whose juvenile LWOP regime is discretionary? The principal case is State v. Omer Ninham, 2011 WI 33, cert denied, No. 11-6496, 6/29/12, which rejected Ninham’s argument that LWOP for a 14-year-old offender “categorically” violates the 8th amendment. That argument isn’t foreclosed by Miller, even if it by Ninham itself. To some extent, the argument in Ninham – with the stress on a categorical ban – may have turned the problem on its head. Consider, for example, this passage, 2011 WI 33:

¶74  We do not disagree that, typically, juvenile offenders are less culpable than adult offenders and are therefore generally less deserving of the most severe punishments. See Graham, 130 S. Ct. at 2026 (citing Roper, 543 U.S. at 569-70). Furthermore, we do not dispute Ninham’s argument that, on average, the younger the juvenile offender, the more his or her culpability diminishes.  However, the constitutional question before us does not concern only the typical 14-year-old offender. Rather, the question before us concerns all 14-year-old offenders, typical or atypical, who commit intentional homicide. Given these facts, we disagree with Ninham that Roper and Graham lead to the conclusion that 14-year-olds who commit intentional homicide are categorically less deserving of life imprisonment without parole.

The thrust of Miller is, at least arguably, that juveniles (especially 14-year-olds) are categorically less deserving of life-without-parole. It is one thing to say, You may impose juvenile LWOP, but only after accounting for the significant mitigator of youth (Miller); quite another to say, The mitigator of youth is so distinct as to preclude juvenile LWOP (Ninham).

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