Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2016

Center/Program

Center for Gender & Sexuality Law

Abstract

In the past decade, the Supreme Court has transformed the constitutional landscape of juvenile crime regulation. In three strongly worded opinions, the Court held that imposing harsh criminal sentences on juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Roper v Simmons in 2005 prohibited the imposition of the death penalty for a crime committed by a juvenile.1 Five years later, Graham v. Florida held that no juvenile could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for a nonhomicide offense.2 Then in 2012, Miller v. Alabama struck down statutes that required courts to sentence juveniles convicted of murder to LWOP.3 The three decisions present a remarkably coherent and consistent account; indeed, the Court's analysis and rationale are virtually identical across the opinions. In combination, these cases create a special status for juveniles under Eighth Amendment doctrine as a category of offenders whose culpability is mitigated by their youth and immaturity, even for the most serious offenses. The Court also emphasized that juveniles are more likely to reform than adult offenders, and that most should be given a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that they have done so. In short, because of young offenders' developmental immaturity, harsh sentences that may be suitable for adult criminals are seldom appropriate for juveniles.

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