Juvenile Life Without Parole Is Unconstitutional…Almost

This week the Supreme Court declared that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment. This is a significant step toward banning the practice of sentencing juveniles to die in prison.

June 26, 2012

In November 1999, a 14-year-old boy named Kuntrell Jackson joined two friends in a plan to rob a video store. When he learned that one of his friends was carrying a shotgun, Jackson at first decided to stay outside of the store. When he later entered the building, he saw his friend shoot the store clerk. Prosecutors charged him as an adult for capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, crimes that require a sentence of life without parole under Arkansas law.  Although Jackson was still a teenager when he was found guilty, the court had no choice but to sentence him to die in prison.

This week, in Miller v Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court recognized the folly of Jackson’s sentence, declaring that a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment. Together, these cases represent a significant and necessary step toward banning the cruel and unusual practice of sentencing juveniles to die in prison – a sentence that no other country in the world imposes.

The Court’s decision follows recent declarations that juveniles cannot face the death penalty, and that they cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide convictions.

If you accept that children are inclined to make impulsive decisions, and that they are  vulnerable to “negative influences and outside pressures” from family and peers, then a life sentence without parole doesn’t ever make sense for a juvenile, whether or not the sentence is mandatory.  

The Court cited testimony showing that young people are more capable of reform than adults. A child or teenager’s brain is still developing, and likely to mature away from criminal proclivities. But a life without parole sentence presumes that the convicted person does not deserve a chance to reform. The opportunity for parole does not guarantee release, but it recognizes the potential for rehabilitation. If we accept that a young person has any hope of reforming his or her ways, then life without parole is a disproportionate punishment for any juvenile offense.

Aside from the Court’s societal and moral arguments for an “evolving standard of decency” that makes juvenile life without parole a disproportionate punishment in most cases, there are several important reasons why states should abandon this sentence altogether. In a criminal justice system riddled with racial bias, it is no surprise that black and brown children are much more likely to face life without parole. Of the juveniles facing this sentence in Florida as of 2009 for non-homicide offenses, 84 percent were African American. The risk of a grossly disparate racial impact should deter states from seeking juvenile life without parole. Furthermore, as many states have recognized, this country’s outsized prison system is creating a fiscal crisis. A recent ACLU report shows that elderly prisoners are twice as expensive to incarcerate as the average prisoner and pose little danger to society. Imposing a life without parole sentence on young people – who have arguably the greatest potential for rehabilitation and successful reentry into society – makes no fiscal sense.

Though the Court has stopped short of a categorical bar on juvenile life without parole, prosecutors and judges should heed Justice Kagan’s prediction that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” They should use their discretion to promote sensible sentencing practices, allowing young people the opportunity to grow beyond their mistakes, however terrible; not condemning them to life behind bars.