Miller v. Alabama: One Year Later

Last year, the Supreme Court declared mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional. A year after the landmark ruling, how have the nation’s juvenile justice systems been impacted?

Notion that “Kids are Different” Takes Hold in Youth Justice Policy Reform

2005 – Roper v. Simmons: U.S. Supreme court rules that it is cruel and unusual punishment to impose the death penalty on people for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. “[F]rom a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, 570 (2005). 

2010 – Graham v. Florida: U.S. Supreme Court rules that life-without-parole sentences imposed on children for non-homicide offenses are unconstitutional. “‘(J)uvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders.’ “ Graham v, Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 2026 (2010), quoting Roper, 543 U.S., at 573.“Juveniles are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of ‘irretrievably depraved character’ than are the actions of adults. Id. 

2011 -- J.D.B. v. North Carolina: U.S. Supreme Court establishes that youth status matters in areas of youth justice beyond the context of harsh sentencing policies when it imposed the requirement that law enforcement officials must consider the age of a suspect in determining whether Miranda warnings should be issued.

Nebraska Pardons Board Cancels Hearings for LWOP Prisoners Convicted as Juveniles

The Nebraska Pardons Board cancelled this week’s hearings following the granting of an injunction request by more than a dozen prisoners, who said that the meetings, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, may result in them receiving prison sentences of at least 50 years. The Omaha World Herald reports that Douglas County Judge Thomas Otepka granted the request late last Friday, with the Pardons Board subsequently postponing several hearings scheduled for Monday and Wednesday. “Defendants are enjoined from commencing the commutation hearings scheduled for December 3 and 5, 2012, until such time as the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Nebraska Legislature addresses the constitutional mandates of Miller v. Alabama,” Otepka wrote. Two weeks earlier, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning - a member of the state’s Pardons Board - said that he would likely give the prisoners, all currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, minimum 50-year sentences in hearings originally scheduled for this week. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” Bruning said.

Federal, State Courts may Clash on 350 Juvenile Lifers

A Michigan state court case says some 350 people given mandatory no-parole sentences for murders committed as juveniles must serve their full sentences. But in the coming days, a federal court is expected to opine on a similar question. A federal court in Michigan will soon rule on the constitutionality of automatic, no-appeal life sentences given to 13 people over the last few decades. The offenders in Hill et. al.

Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles who Kill

In the 1993 book "Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean tells the story of people directly impacted by capital punishment – convicted murderers counting down to their own executions, wardens and guards dutifully operating the machinery of death, and victims who are consumed by rage and grief. Prejean’s book, upon which the popular movie was based, is much more than a memoir. Well-researched and annotated, it carefully explores the legal, ethical and philosophical issues raised by the most controversial form of punishment in the United States. But the power of the book comes from its candor – from the fact that Prejean began her journey without a clear perspective or opinion on the death penalty. I read "Dead Man Walking" when it was first published. I had recently graduated from law school and was clerking for an appellate court judge. Although only vaguely interested in criminal law, I finished it quickly, engrossed by Prejean’s account of her experiences as a spiritual adviser for men on death row and moved by her struggle to find common ground with the families of victims.

I thought of this last weekend after reading Ethan Bronner’s article in The New York Times on reactions to Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. With more than 2,000 offenders across the country who may be resentenced as a result of Miller, Bronner focused on a single case – a pregnant teen killed by her 15-year-old boyfriend – and prominently featured an interview with the victim’s sister, Bobbi Jamriska, who is active in the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. Unlike Prejean’s book, but typical of most coverage of criminal sentencing, the Times article explicitly pits juveniles serving life sentences against victims’ families; it asserts without attribution that the decision in Miller threw "thousands" like Jamriska into "anguished turmoil at the prospect that the killers of their loved ones may walk the streets again.” Such hyperbole only perpetuates the notion that the ideal resolution is always to warehouse young offenders – without opportunity for review of their sentences – forever. I do respect Mr. Bronner’s work, but I don’t agree with the way he handled this piece and I told him so.