Today, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth issues the first-ever guidelines for defending children facing our country’s most extreme sentence. “Trial Defense Guidelines: Representing a Child Client Facing a Possible Life Sentence” (“Guidelines”) seeks to articulate the standard established by Miller v. Alabama for legal representation of children facing life sentences.
The first juvenile court was created in the United States more than a century ago with the recognition that children are developmentally different from adults and possess a unique capacity to grow and change. Yet today, many children are tried in adult court and are too often treated like adults — by prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys alike. Child defendants in adult court are expected to make decisions like adults, even though we know they are less capable of understanding the consequences of their actions and less able to navigate the complexities of the legal system.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to impose a mandatory life-without-parole sentence on a child under the age of 18, expressly because of these differences. The court called for individualized sentencing of children facing life in prison, similar to that of capital cases, where consideration of a child’s age, role in the crime, life history and capacity for rehabilitation, are required. Once this information is taken into account, the court counseled that life sentences for children will be “uncommon.”
However, the continued imposition of extreme sentences on our nation’s children since this landmark ruling highlights the need for greater understanding of the Miller decision among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, and more specialized legal defense for children facing life imprisonment.
Representing a child facing an extreme sentence requires a unique skill set and more resources, similar to those made available in capital cases. A defense attorney needs to foster a developmentally and age-appropriate attorney-client relationship and also needs to be cognizant of the ongoing concerns of the child’s loved ones, as well as investigate and present comprehensive mitigation at sentencing.
In response to the urgent needs of both defense attorneys and youth justice advocates, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth drafted the Guidelines in collaboration with defense attorneys, an investigator and mitigation specialists from across the country.
Endorsed by the foremost national- and local-level defense organizations from across the country, such as Gideon’s Promise, the Juvenile Law Center and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Guidelines set forth a national standard of practice for representing children facing the harshest sentence that can be imposed on children in the U.S. It is crucial that every child facing a life sentence receives an individualized sentencing hearing during which mitigating evidence must be presented in support of the presumption against a life sentence.
The Guidelines, therefore, call for a team approach of attorneys, investigators and mitigation specialists, who collectively have experience investigating, preparing and presenting mitigating evidence at trial, as well as experience communicating with adolescents in a trauma-informed and age-appropriate manner. The Guidelines outline the responsibilities of each member of the defense team throughout the trial process. By doing so, the Guidelines will help ensure zealous, constitutionally effective representation for our children facing life sentences.
Justice demands that all defendants — and especially children — have access to fairness, due process and competent and prepared counsel when they face a possible life sentence. With the implementation of these guidelines, we get a step closer to ensuring these are not ideals but realities. Our children — and our country — deserve nothing less.
Jeff Howard is legal director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.