Supreme Court Rules Life Without Parole for Juveniles Unconstitutional

July 2, 2012

By Martha-Grace Duncan

In a historic decision, on June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state laws mandating life without parole for juvenile offenders. In a 5-4 decision in the case of Miller v. Alabama, the Court held that such laws constitute cruel and unusual punishment and are thus prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.  

The Court stopped short of saying that states may never sentence a juvenile to life without parole. Rather, it said that states must make an individualized assessment of factors before life without parole can be imposed for any crime committed under the age of 18.

In practice, this latest decision applies only to juvenile offenders convicted of homicide. In a previous case, Graham v. Florida, the Court had held it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole when they did not commit homicide.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court ingeniously brought about a confluence of two distinct lines of precedent. The first line focuses on children—how they are different from adults and should thus be treated differently in the criminal justice system. The second line focuses on the death penalty irrespective of age and holds that capital punishment may not be made mandatory for a whole class of cases, but may only be imposed pursuant to individualized procedures.  

As the bridge between these two lines of cases, the Supreme Court noted a statement made in the earlier case of Graham that life without parole in juvenile cases was similar to the death penalty. This statement enabled the Court to invoke the line of death penalty cases and apply them to a punishment that on its face is very different; namely, life without parole for juveniles.

The holding in Miller v. Alabama has sparked jubilation and renewed hope among some 2,000 inmates and their families nationwide. The expectation is that most inmates who were mandatory sentenced to live and die in prison will now be re-sentenced to life with parole or to a term of years.

Martha Grace Duncan is a professor of law. Her research interests focus on the symbolism and meanings of prison; the relationship between the criminal and the law-abiding citizen; law and emotion; Spanish language and literature; and psychoanalysis.

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