On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it is unconstitutional to impose a life-without-parole sentence on someone who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime without first considering “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 480 (2012). In so ruling, the Court struck down all statutes that require a child to be sentenced to die in prison. The ruling granted new sentencing hearings for Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, petitioners in the two cases before the Court, both of whom were automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed at the age of 14.*
The Court held that imposing life-without-parole sentences on children without consideration of their youth “contravenes Graham’s (and also Roper’s) foundational principle: that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 474. Therefore, regardless of the crime committed, child status matters.
Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, said that sentencing must include consideration of a child’s chronological age and its hallmark features, such as immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. Id. at 477. It also should take into account the family and home environment — from which the youth cannot usually extricate himself, even if it is brutal or dysfunctional, as well as the youth’s role in the crime and potential to become rehabilitated. Id.
The Court also was clear that life without parole sentences for children should be rare. Justice Kagan wrote, “Given all we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” Id. at 479. Further the sentence is appropriate only for “the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Id. at 479-480. The ruling affects more than 2600 individuals whose age and other mitigating factors were not taken into account at sentencing.
*Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs are companion cases that were argued separately but that shared one Supreme Court opinion.