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Giving Juveniles Another Chance: The Present and Potential Retroactive Impact of Miller v. Alabama

Photo by: James Clayton

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder are unconstitutional.  Writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision, Justice Kagan explained that imposing such mandatory sentences on adolescents, who tend to have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform,”11 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The ruling struck down compulsory sentencing statutes in 29 states.  More importantly, it leaves more than 2,500 inmates across the country perplexed as to what the decision means for them.

The Court’s decision follows several recent judgments lessening the severity of juvenile punishment.  These rulings have established that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” 2  In 2005, the Court held in Roper v. Simmons that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment to impose the death penalty for crimes committed when the perpetrator was under the age of 18.  In Graham v. Florida, decided in 2010, the Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses similarly violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

Though these decisions laid the foundation for the Court’s latest ruling, the holding in Miller is much narrower.  The previous cases forbid certain punishments under any circumstances, whereas Miller merely prohibits a mandatory sentence of life without parole.  In other words, states can still impose life-without-parole sentences upon juvenile murderers, but they must meet new procedural requirements of individualized sentencing, which will incorporate consideration of the mitigating qualities of youth.

The Miller decision not only necessitates legislative reform within states that currently have such mandatory sentences for juveniles, but also calls into question the fate of thousands of prisoners across the country sentenced by prior statutes now ruled unconstitutional.

In Pennsylvania, for example, anyone indicted for murder is automatically charged as an adult, and a first- or second-degree murder conviction would have previously imposed a mandatory life-without-parole sentence.  Pennsylvania is one of the 29 states that will have to modify its juvenile sentencing structure, and currently has an estimated 500 juvenile “lifers” in its prison system.  This represents one-fifth of such juveniles nationwide.

According to Pennsylvania juvenile advocates, most of the state’s 500 juvenile lifers filed for reconsideration of their sentences following the Miller decision in June.  On September 12, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices heard advisory arguments concerning how the state should respond to the appeals.  Although the court has not yet resolved the issue, and is unlikely to do so for months, the arguments shed light on both sides of the controversy.

Pennsylvania prosecutors maintain that the high court should simply do nothing.  After all, the Miller decision did not ban life imprisonment, only a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.  Others, including leaders from conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, likewise contend that the Court’s holding was merely a procedural change and would therefore not apply retroactively. 5  This reflects the spirit of the Court’s ruling, giving juveniles an opportunity for redemption—a chance to reenter society following rehabilitation.

It is hard to reconcile a decision that deems it cruel and unusual punishment to mandatorily sentence juveniles to life without parole based on their lack of development with a refusal to apply the decision retroactively.  As Jon Powell, Professor of Law and Director of the Juvenile Justice Project at Campbell University School of Law said, “Juveniles can still be good citizens within prison, but what we really want from our justice system is for it to return productive citizens back into our communities.”

Jacqui Merrill, Former Features Editor
About Jacqui Merrill, Former Features Editor (8 Articles)
Jacquelyn Merrill is a third-year law student and serves as the Features Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She was born and raised in Asheville, NC, and graduated in 2011 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied Journalism and English. During law school, she has interned at the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C., the Wake County Public Defender's Office in Raleigh, the Supreme Court of North Carolina for the Honorable Robert H. Edmunds, and the Pierce County Department of Assigned Counsel in Tacoma, WA. Jacqui has had the unique opportunity to facilitate mediations through Campbell Law's Juvenile Justice Project beginning her second year and continuing through her third. During the Fall 2013 semester, Jacquelyn externed at Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions in the Research Triangle Park. In her final semester, she is interning at the Durham County District Attorney's Office in the juvenile court. She is interested in pursuing a career rooted in social justice.
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