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Supreme Court Makes Landmark Ruling on Life Imprisonment for Juveniles

Posted on June 28, 2012

Photo by publik15, used with Creative Commons License.

On June 25th, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles under the age of 17 are unconstitutional. The court’s ruling came after hearing arguments on two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which involved fourteen-year-olds sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted of a homicide offense. “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,” wrote Justice Kagan, who authored the majority decision. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” The new ruling draws on the precedent of two Supreme Court cases. Roper v. Simmons eliminated the death penalty for juveniles, and Sullivan v. Florida ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole for crimes not involving a homicide was unconstitutional. Both of these recent decisions relied on critical social science evidence, including studies regarding adolescent brain development, to conclude that juveniles should not be beyond the opportunity for redemption.

Currently there are more than 2,000 juveniles serving life sentences under the mandatory sentencing laws that were struck down by the court in this decision. The court’s ruling will now require lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings. At these hearings judges will have to consider children’s life circumstances, individual character, and the circumstances of the crime before issuing a new sentence.

Schubert Center Policy Director Gabriella Celeste played a key role in authoring the juvenile justice sections of House Bill 86, which reformed the sentencing and treatment of juvenile offenders in Ohio, and was signed into law by Governor John Kasich in 2011. Read more about the bill. As part of the 2011-2012 Schubert Conversation Series, Faculty Associate Patrick Kanary and The George Gund Foundations Marcia Egbert joined Celeste to discuss the dynamic collaboration between practitioners, advocates, policy makers, researchers and funders that led to the bill’s passage. Download the presentation.

Read a summary of Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama.

Read New York Times and NPR coverage of the case.

Read the Plain Dealer’s piece on how this ruling could affect two cases in Ohio.

For information on other juvenile justice-related topics, download the Schubert Center issue and policy brief on Girls in the Juvenile Justice System..

Page last modified: March 24, 2014