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Is Juvenile Life without Parole Cruel and Unusual? Part 1 of 3

Attorneys at Law Timlin & Rye July 30, 2014

Life without the possibility of parole is a severe sentence for any adult. It is a sentence reserved for the most serious of crimes. This sentence is even harsher for a juvenile. A juvenile sentenced to life without parole will never spend a day as an adult outside of prison.

Juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) is a current hot button issue in the juvenile law field.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which changed JLWOP sentencing.

However, the Court left questions unanswered, and states have been tackling those issues since the Miller decision. JLWOP is currently before the Colorado Supreme Court, and there could be a decision any day.

In a three-part blog series, I will discuss the US Supreme Court’s ruling, how the Miller decision has affected decisions made in other states, and detail the current Colorado case.

Many professionals feel strongly that life without parole sentences should be abolished for juveniles. Others feel just as strongly that juveniles who commit adult-like crimes should be sentenced as adults. While states are grappling with this issue, there has yet to be a bright-line legal determination that juveniles should never receive life without parole.

In Miller v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court examined two cases, one from Arkansas and one from Alabama. In the Arkansas case, 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson went with his friends to a video store with the purpose of robbing it. On the way to the store, Jackson learned one of the other boys brought a gun. Jackson stayed outside of the store for most of the robbery.

However, he entered and was inside when one of the other boys shot and killed the store clerk. Jackson was sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole under the Arkansas statute.

In the Alabama case, Evan Miller, also 14 years old, and a friend were drinking and doing drugs at the home of an adult neighbor. The neighbor had come over to Miller’s trailer earlier in the night to do a drug deal with Miller’s mother. Miller had been in and out of foster care due to the neglect and abuse he suffered in his mother’s home.

When the neighbor passed out, Miller and his friend stole the neighbor’s wallet. When the neighbor woke up and grabbed Miller, a friend hit him with a baseball bat. Miller then took the bat and hit him several more times. The boys left, but later returned and set two fires. The neighbor later died of his injuries and smoke inhalation. Miller was also sentenced to life without parole under an Alabama mandatory sentencing statute.

Many states, including Colorado, have mandatory sentencing statutes. Certain convictions have specific mandatory sentences that go along with the crime. Usually, judges are not permitted to deviate from mandatory sentence requirements.

In the Miller case, both boys fell under a mandatory life without parole statute and were sentenced accordingly.

The Supreme Court found that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, invalidating all state statutes that permitted mandatory juvenile sentences of life without parole.

The Court reasoned that the Eighth Amendment requires proportionality in sentencing. In other words, the punishment must be proportional to the crime. In support of its reasoning, the Court discussed how different juveniles are from adults.

The court clearly found from other cases that, “children have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.” Leading to “recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.”

Children are also more vulnerable, “have limited control over their own environment, and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”

The Court further discussed how a child’s character is not yet fully formed and how children’s traits are not yet fixed in their personality like adults.  Because these things make children so different from adults, the court concluded that a judge must have the authority to consider the individual circumstances of the juvenile, including his/her youth, before sentencing them to life without parole.

The Miller case made mandatory JLWOP sentences unconstitutional. The door is still open for juveniles to receive a sentence of life without parole, but judges must now take into consideration individual factors before imposing that sentence.

The Miller case left many questions unanswered.

  • First, it did not address whether the ruling was retroactive for prisoners currently serving JWLOP sentences.

  • Second, in discussing youth and its hallmarks of immaturity the Court sparked discussion about whether life without parole can ever be an appropriate sentence for juveniles.

State courts have been dealing with the aftermath of the Miller case since 2012. Next, we will discuss what other states have decided about JLWOP and how Colorado is handling this issue currently.  Read part 2

If you have any questions about this article or any questions related to juvenile law, please Timlin & Rye Law or email us

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