Empirical research drives recent reform efforts. The past decade has witnessed the identification of key developmental processes associated with delinquent behavior, with neuroscientists concluding that the regions of the brain associated with impulse control and risk assessment are not fully formed until at least 25 years of age. In light of such research, the courts, policymakers, and other juvenile justice personnel have required or suggested significant changes to the juvenile justice process, including changes in youth sentencing and confinement.
Notably, four landmark Supreme Court cases – all dating to the last 20 years – have reversed many of the punitive policies enacted in the 1990s, by prohibiting the most severe punishment for juvenile offenders. Read about these four remarkable cases below, and listen to the oral arguments here, if you’re interested.
Roper v Simmons (2005)
In 2005, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to impose a death penalty sentence on any youth who was under the age of 18 when they committed their offense (Roper v. Simmons). Although Christopher Simmons planned and committed a capital offense (murdering his neighbor, Shirley Cook), the court ruled that 18 years of age is where criminal responsibility should rest. That is to say, if a child is too young to vote, sign contracts, or do a number of other “adult” things, then they are too young to receive the death penalty. In their decision, the court referenced, “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” to determine which punishments are so disproportionate as to be “cruel and unusual.” Simmons received life in prison for his crime. At the time of the Roper v. Simmons verdict, the U.S. was only one of a handful of countries that still imposed the death penalty on juveniles.
Graham v Florida (2010)
While the death penalty was taken off the table for youth under the age of 18, many were instead being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for numerous violent crimes. This was until the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida. Terrance Graham received life in prison for a felony offense (armed burglary) when he was only 16 years old. Since Florida does not have parole, his sentence de facto became life without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court heard his case and ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a minor to life without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense.
Miller v Alabama (2012)
Two years later, juvenile law again rested in the hands of the Supreme Court. Even though Graham v. Florida abolished life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses, youth under the age of 18 were still receiving that sentence for crimes of murder – including record numbers in Pennsylvania. In 2012, Evan Miller was 14 years old when he killed his neighbor by severely beating him with a baseball bat, while attempting to rob him. Referencing contemporary research about brain formation and juvenile culpability, the Supreme Court ruled that youth are not as responsible as adults for their actions because their brains have not fully formed. In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that “mandatory life without parole for those under age of 18 at the time of their crime violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.” “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Kagan said. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him – and from which he cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
This seemed like a huge win for juvenile justice reformers. Juveniles could no longer receive the death penalty, life without parole for non-homicide, nor mandatory life without parole for homicide. However, there were still so many people serving LWOP sentences who were juveniles when they committed their crime.
Montgomery v Louisiana (2016)
In 2016, the Supreme Court heard the case of Henry Montgomery, who was 17 years old in 1963 when killed a sheriff’s deputy. (He initially received a death sentence, which was overturned upon evidence of racial discrimination in sentencing.) Montgomery instead received a life sentence, which he appealed after the Miller v. Alabama ruling. Montgomery v. Alabama barred mandatory life without parole sentences retroactively. This meant that all youth sentenced prior to 2012 with LWOP sentences needed to be retried. In Pennsylvania, this has led to the mandatory resentencing of over 500 “juvenile lifers” – the highest population in the country.