U.S. Supreme Court Hears Key Cases on Juvenile Life without Parole
On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two criminal cases that resulted in mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for two youth convicted of separate murders, both of whom were only 14 years old at the time of the offense. At the heart of both cases is the constitutionality of sentencing a minor to die in prison.
In Jackson v. Hobbs, the young defendant did not commit the homicide for which he received a life sentence without parole, but was convicted for participating in the robbery during which a store clerk was killed. In Miller v. Alabama, the young defendant was convicted of robbing and severely beating an older neighbor with whom he and a friend had been drinking and smoking marijuana in a trailer, and then setting fire to the trailer to hide the offense.
The Jackson and Miller cases seek to build on the Supreme Court’s rulings in Simmons v. Roper (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2010). In Roper, the Supreme Court deemed capital punishment to be unconstitutional for anyone under the age of 18, citing the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the “comparative immaturity and irresponsibility of juveniles.” In Graham, the Court struck down JLWOP sentences in non-homicide cases, deeming such sentences to also be in violation of the Eighth Amendment and opining that juvenile offenders should be afforded “some realistic opportunity to obtain release” before the end of their sentence.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the  Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), argued the Jackson and Miller cases on March 20. In 2010, Stevenson and his colleagues argued the case in Sullivan v. Florida, which involved a young man who in 1989 became one of only two 13-year-olds in the nation sentenced to life without parole for an offense that did not involve a homicide. Sullivan was heard and resolved with Graham.
Currently, 49 states allow the imposition of life sentences without the possibility of parole; only Alaska mandates some opportunity for release. Across the nation, there are approximately 2,570 men and women serving LWOP for offenses they committed as a minor. Of these, nearly two-thirds are in just five states: Pennsylvania (444), Michigan (346), Louisiana (332), Florida (266) and California (250).
According to the  Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, seven states already prohibit LWOP sentences for juveniles: Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, New Mexico, and Oregon. Another five states– Maine, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and West Virginia – do not currently have anyone serving an LWOP sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile. The federal government also permits juveniles to receive LWOP sentences, and there are approximately 36 federal inmates who have received LWOP for crimes they committed before the age of 18.
CJJ has long been a  proponent of age and developmentally appropriate sentences that recognize and make full use of a youth’s potential for rehabilitation, growth and transformation. In 2004, ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roper v. Simmons, with counsel from Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin and Oshinsky, LLP of Washington, D.C., CJJ filed a brief as amicus curiae to  support the abolition of the death penalty for juveniles. In 2009, ahead of the Court’s 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, the CJJ Council of State Advisory Groups (SAGs) passed a  resolution opposing LWOP for youth who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offenses.