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Analysis

State Courts Advance Protections for Young Defendants Even as SCOTUS Slows Progress

Recent decisions show courts using state constitutions to protect young defendants’ rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court signaled last year it would not continue advancing protections for young defendants under the Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.” It’s a departure from 20 years of rulings that gradually expanded those Eighth Amendment guarantees. But several state courts are relying on their state constitutions to provide greater protections and insulate these rulings from further erosion by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2012, the Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole were unconstitutional for anyone under the age of 18 at the time of the offense, recognizing that “youth matters in sentencing” because young minds are still developing. In 2016, the Court held that Miller applies retroactively. But last year, in Jones v. Mississippi, the Court watered down those protections. It ruled that a court could still use its discretion to order a life sentence without needing to issue a specific finding that the defendant was “permanently incorrigible.”

This summer, though, Michigan’s supreme court explicitly recognized that its state constitution is more protective than the federal constitution. While the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet applied Miller’s reasoning to 18-year-olds, in People v. Parks, the state high court found that the ban on mandatory sentences of life without parole applies to 18-year-olds in Michigan under the state constitution. Considering an appeal under the state and federal constitutions by Kemo Parks, who was convicted at age 18 and sentenced to life without parole, the court noted that Parks’s federal claims failed, but “we may draw our own line, and we do so today.”

To support its departure from federal precedent, the court first pointed to a textual difference between the state and federal constitutions. The Michigan Constitution prohibits “cruel or unusual” punishment, in contrast to the Eighth Amendment’s use of “cruel and unusual.” The court then considered scientific evidence that there is no meaningful distinction between the neurological development of 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds and reached the “inescapable conclusion that mandatorily condemning 18-year-olds to die in prison, without consideration of the attributes of youth that 18-year-olds and juveniles share, no longer comports with the ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’”

In State v. Kelliher, meanwhile, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that a de facto life sentence for a juvenile defendant whom a trial court deemed “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable” violates both the state and federal constitutions. A trial court had sentenced James Kelliher to two 25-year sentences to run consecutively for a total of 50 years before parole eligibility. While the state argued that Jones weakened federal constitutional protections and that, regardless, the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled as to whether protections apply to very long sentences that aren’t formally life sentences, the North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that Kelliher’s sentence was still prohibited by U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  

But then the court went further, holding that whatever the federal constitutional protections, North Carolina’s constitution prohibits such a sentence. The court noted that it has a duty to apply the independent text of the state’s constitution, particularly in light of “North Carolina’s constitutionally expressed commitment to nurturing the potential of all our state’s children.” While the North Carolina Constitution shares Michigan’s prohibition on “cruel or unusual” punishment, the court made clear it has the authority to interpret its own constitution differently, even if the words “precisely mirror” the U.S. Constitution.

Even in states with unique constitutional provisions, however, judges disagree about how persuasive U.S. Supreme Court decisions are. In Washington, for example, Tonelli Anderson was sentenced to 61 years in prison for crimes committed at age 17 and argued in State v. Anderson that his sentence was a de facto life sentence in violation of the Washington State Constitution. In a 4–3 decision, the Washington Supreme Court, which had in 2021 banned mandatory life sentences for anyone under 21, let the sentence stand. The majority characterized the state’s prior rulings banning life sentences as only applying to crimes that “reflect the mitigating characteristics of youth.” But a dissent from the chief justice argued that such exceptions are only part of federal jurisprudence under the Eighth Amendment and are not relevant to the state constitution’s more robust protections for children.

These cases are strong reminders that there is no single way forward in constitutional development. Even before Jones, a handful of other state high courts had read their constitutions to prohibit mandatory de facto life sentences without parole, and state supreme courts in Iowa and Massachusetts ruled that their state constitutions prohibit all juvenile life without parole sentences, whether or not the sentence was mandatory. Many more states have banned such sentences through legislation. As Eighth Amendment jurisprudence looks to “evolving standards of decency” to determine what punishment is cruel and unusual, these states and their courts are important examples of just how those standards are evolving.