Before the Court: The Constitutionality of Life Without Parole Sentencing for Juvenile Murderers

Erin Brennan, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

Erin Brennan, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

That is the question that is before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases being heard concurrently, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on these cases on March 20, 2012. This issue has worked its way into the Supreme Court docket as a response to questions arising from a somewhat recent thread of cases including Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida.

In Roper, the court looked at the constitutionality of the death penalty as a sentence for juveniles who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed[1]. The Court ultimately concluded in its 2005 decision that the death penalty for teenagers under the age of 18, was indeed, unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment.[2] The court relied on “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” in order to make a judgment in regards to which punishments reach the level of “cruel and unusual.”[3] The Court also looked to the fact that a majority of the states disallowed the death penalty for juveniles as indicia (evidence) of general societal views that juveniles are “categorically less culpable than the average criminal.”[4] As an illustration of this, in Justice Kennedy’s opinion, he indicated that “[t]he reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.”[5]

Furthermore, the Court took this holding a step further in Graham. The Court, in that case, held that life sentences without parole are cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment in cases involving juvenile non-homicide offenders. The Supreme Court left unanswered the question of whether sentencing juveniles who committed murder to life without parole is permissible.

            The Court’s stance on this latest question could potentially affect over 2,000 prisoners who committed murder when they were under eighteen and are currently sentenced to life without parole.[6] However, 79 of these prisoners are imprisoned for crimes they committed when they were fourteen years of age or under, the ages of the defendants in Miller and Jackson.[7] Therefore, the repercussions of the Court’s decision could be felt by many more individuals if they broaden their holding to include those under eighteen years of age, or lessen its impact if the Court narrows its holding to preclude this sentence for those fourteen and younger.

            The Court will be facing a potentially difficult task in reaching a conclusion in this instance, as the Miller and Jackson cases present quite varied situations. The facts of the Miller case can be considered rather shocking. Evan Miller took part in (and arguably orchestrated) the killing of his middle-aged neighbor Cole Cannon in Alabama. Miller, fourteen at the time of the murder, and Colby Smith, his sixteen year old co-defendant, brutally beat Cannon in his trailer after attempting to rob him of approximately $300. The boys had already stolen a number of baseball cards from Cannon’s home earlier in the evening. The boys returned to Cannon’s trailer a short time after they left him to die, in order “to cover up the evidence” by setting the trailer on fire.[8] Cannon eventually died due to smoke inhalation from the fire.[9]

            On the other end of the spectrum, the Jackson case involves an arguably more sympathetic defendant. Kuntrell Jackson, also fourteen years old at the time, was charged with felony murder in the state of Arkansas.[10] Jackson did not shoot the victim, rather Jackson was with a group of boys when they robbed and shot a video store clerk with a sawed off shot-gun.[11]

            These two cases illustrate the wide variance of potential scenarios that could lead to a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile who is convicted of murder. It also raises questions about the mandatory nature of some of the states sentencing schemes. Currently, thirty-nine states allow sentences of life without parole for juveniles who commit murder.[12] Both Alabama and Arkansas, the states at issue in these cases, have mandatory requirements of sentences of life without parole for juveniles who are convicted of murder. In fact, around some 2/3 of states which permit life sentences without parole for juveniles require mandatory sentencing.[13]

            There is a good argument that mandatory sentences may also prevent the telling of the whole story involved with a case. If a person is automatically given the sentence of life without parole, it prevents the jury or the judge (whoever is carrying out sentencing) from considering relevant mitigating factors. For instance, just from reading the facts given above in the Miller case, a potential member of the jury may say to themselves it is justified that the young man was given a life sentence without the chance of parole. However, would they feel this same way if they learned that Evan Miller grew up subject to a childhood of abuse? That he was beaten by his alcoholic father? That his mother was a drug addict?[14]  That he turned to drug use and alcohol to cope with his situation at the age of eight?[15]  Even if these facts would change a jury’s mind, they do not play a significant role under the current mandatory sentence guidelines.

Some, including Miller’s defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, argue that sentences of life without parole should be done away with altogether for children under eighteen. In part, this argument hinges on the fact that America has one of the most severe systems of punishment for juveniles when compared to other countries.[16] In addition, Stevenson argues that the Court’s holding in Graham should not be limited to non-homicide cases because “[a]ll children are encumbered with the same barriers that this Court has found to be constitutionally relevant before imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty.”[17]

 On the other hand, a number of legal experts would argue that a constitutional ban on these sorts of sentences for juvenile offenders would not be the most effective means of achieving a just result. As a victim right’s advocate Kent Scheindegger put it, “[A]ge is something to take into consideration in sentencing, but that one factor should not trump everything else.”[18]

At the end of the day the fact that this sentence is permitted by such a majority of the states may weigh heavily on the Court’s analysis in accordance with “the evolving standards of decency” under the Eighth Amendment. As Justice Scalia indicated during oral arguments, “[T]he American people have decided that that’s the rule. They allow it. And the federal government allows it. So I’m supposed to impose my judgment on what seems to be a consensus of the American people?”[19]

[3] Roper, 545 at 551.

[4] Roper,

[5] Roper, 545 at 553.

[17] Oral Arguments, Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646,  pg 3. March 20, 2012.


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