By: Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, Children’s Law Center, Litigation Director

The United States Supreme Court ruled today,  June 25th 2012, in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing schemes which mandate life in prison without possibility of parole for homicide offenses committed by minors violates the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions. That right “flows from the basic ‘precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’ ”to both the offender and the offense.

In Roper v. Simmons, in 2005, the US Supreme Court imposed a categorical ban on the use of the death penalty for capital offenses committed by minors because of the mismatch between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of the penalty. In Graham v. Florida in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a categorical ban on the use of life without parole sentences for non-homicide crimes committed by minors. Thus, according to the Court in Graham, youth matters in determining the appropriateness of a lifetime of incarceration without the possibility of parole. It is this necessity to consider the impact of one’s youth on one’s wrongdoing that has now led the Supreme Court of the United States to rule that mandatory life without parole sentences for homicides  committed when a person is a minor are unconstitutional. This decision does not mean that juries  or courts cannot consider a full range of penalties when sentencing a person for an offense committed when the individual was a minor. It does mean that the person’s youthfulness at the time of the crime must be a consideration at sentencing.

Those who work with adolescents and teenagers know that a child’s lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility can lead to recklessness, impulsitivy, and heedless risk-taking. Children are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, have limited control over their environment and sometimes lack the ability to extricate themselves from bad influences or negative situations. The Court explicitly referenced these realities in its opinion.

The potential for change is enormous in children when they are placed in a positive environment and the reasons for their wrongdoing appropriately addressed. It is gratifying to see the highest court in our land recognize that these distinctive attributes of youth must be considered in our penal system, especially when we consider imposing the harshest sentences on those who violate our laws as minors. It may be too strong to say that the Court is mandating the application of mercy or compassion in sentencing a minor. Yet it is clear that our Court is directing that those who impose Justice must seek to understand the unique challenges that youth face.