Comments on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin

BY Michele Deitch, LBJ School Senior Lecturer

The Supreme Court’s welcome decision in Miller v. Alabama, the case dealing with juvenile life without parole, was no surprise to anyone who has been following the Court’s jurisprudence in recent years. Miller is the latest in a line of cases that have ruled, essentially, that children are different from adults and that the criminal justice system must take account of these differences.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that youth under age 18 are ineligible for the death penalty, regardless of their crime. The Court reasoned that the teenage brain is still developing, and this means that youth are both less culpable for their actions than adults and more susceptible to rehabilitation. This same logic undergirded the Court’s next relevant decision in Graham v. Florida in 2011. Graham challenged the use of life without parole for teens who committed non-homicide crimes such as burglary or rape. The Court said that it was unconstitutional to send a child away to prison for the rest of his life for a crime in which there was no loss of life. The Justices could have drawn a distinction between older and younger teens, but declined to do so. They drew a bright line at age 18 and said once again that “children are different from adults.”

The Supreme Court tends to conduct its business by selecting cases that chip away, from an analytic standpoint, at legal quandaries. The Justices rarely leap into unexplored territory or rule more broadly than they need to. So the next logical question for them to consider was whether life without parole would be unconstitutional for juveniles who committed homicide offenses. That challenge presented itself in the Miller case and the companion case, Jackson v. Florida. Miller involved a mandatory life without parole sentence imposed on a 14-year old youth who was party to a murder that occurred in the course of arson. Jackson involved a 14-year old who was part of a group of teens who killed a store clerk in the course of a robbery, but he himself stayed outside the store and was not the shooter.

Since all the same reasoning about the teenage brain and lessened culpability applies with equal force regardless of the crime involved, it makes sense that the Court ruled in favor of Miller and Jackson despite the seriousness of the offenses. But there was a twist here. Rather than issuing a blanket condemnation of life without parole sentences for juveniles, which certainly seemed justified by the Court’s precedents, the opinion focused on the mandatory nature of the sentences, meaning that the judge had no choice but to sentence the teens to spend the rest of their lives in prison. The judges could not take account of Miller’s or Jackson’s youth, their lessened culpability, their potential for rehabilitation, or any mitigating circumstances of their life stories. And this lack of discretion, the Court ruled, is unconstitutional in a case involving children and the life without parole sentence, a sanction originally designed for adults and incidentally imposed on youth who were transferred to the adult system.

On the one hand, it may be possible for observers to read this case as showing the limits of future challenges to juvenile life without parole sentences, since the Court did not hold that life without parole is necessarily unconstitutional in all instances involving juveniles. On the other hand, though, the challenge this case presents to the use of mandatory sentencing is even more intriguing. What logic separates this case from future cases that challenge the use of any mandatory sentences on young offenders? In 2008, I was part of a legal team that represented a young man who was 12 when he tragically killed his beloved grandparents following an extreme reaction to antidepressant medication. The boy was tried as an adult and given a mandatory 30-year sentence without possibility of parole. The mitigating factor of his youth, his potential for rehabilitation, and his background could not be considered by the judge in the case. The Supreme Court declined to take on that case back in 2008, but similar cases involving very long mandatory sentences imposed on young children now seem poised for consideration and reversal by the Court.

I also see in the Miller case some evidence of the Court’s general distaste for mandatory sentencing. While mandatory sentences have certain appeal for the public and “tough on crime” policymakers, they are strongly disfavored by judges who believe they take away their discretion to “do justice” in individual cases. To some degree, this is a battle of control over sentencing decisions among legislatures, the courts and prosecutors. The Supreme Court is slowly moving into this battleground, beginning with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s widely quoted speech to the American Bar Association in 2003, in which he called for policymakers to eliminate mandatory sentences and to return discretion to judges rather than placing tremendous power in the hands of prosecutors. And in 2005, the Court ruled in the Booker case that the widely hated federal sentencing guidelines should not be truly mandatory, but should leave some room for judicial discretion. At the same time that the Miller case reinforces the notion that children are different and require different treatment in the criminal justice system, is this case also the latest iteration in this effort to restore sentencing discretion to judges?

Time will tell how the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence will play out, but in the meantime, policymakers around the country have their work cut out for them. They will need to eliminate any mandatory life without parole sentences applicable to juveniles from their sentencing laws, and ensure that the spirit of the ruling is not violated by simply replacing those sanctions with impossibly long terms of years. And legislators should consider preemptively eliminating any other mandatory sentences applicable to children who are transferred to adult court, including pre-teens. Moreover, courts around the country will be busy holding resentencing hearings for the 2000 or so youth affected by the court’s ruling.

Michele Deitch is an attorney with over 26 years of experience working on criminal justice policy issues with state and local government officials, corrections officials, judges and advocates. She holds a joint appointment as a Senior Lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where she teaches graduate courses in criminal justice policy, juvenile justice policy and the school-to-prison pipeline.