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The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing

Published Sep 30, 2015, Elizabeth Scott, Thomas Grisso, Marsha Levick, and Laurence Steinberg

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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. 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. 

These opinions announce a powerful constitutional principle—that “children are different” for purposes of criminal punishment. In articulating this principle, the Supreme Court has also provided general guidance to courts sentencing juveniles and to lawmakers charged with implementing the rulings. At the same time, the Court did not directly address the specifics of implementation and it left many questions unanswered about the implications of the opinions for juvenile sentencing regulation. In the years since Roper, Graham, and Miller, courts and legislatures have struggled to interpret the opinions and to create procedures and policies that are compatible with constitutional principles and doctrine. 

This report addresses the key issues facing courts and legislatures under this new constitutional regime, and provides guidance based on the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment analysis and on the principles the Court has articulated. 

  • Part I begins with the constitutional sentencing framework, grounded in the opinions and embodying the key elements of the Court’s analysis. It then explains the underlying developmental knowledge that supports the constitutional framework and the “children are different” principle. 
  • Part II  Part II examines how courts and legislatures have responded to the Eighth Amendment opinions, through reforms of state laws regulating juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). While some state lawmakers appear to ignore or subvert the Supreme Court’s holdings, others have responded in ways that clearly embody the principles underlying Miller and Graham. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court held that Miller applies retroactively because it established a substantive rule of constitutional law.
  • Part III translates Miller’s directive that specific factors be considered in making individualized sentencing decisions. The report's aim is to guide courts and clinicians in structuring sentencing hearings that incorporate sound developmental research and other evidence supporting or negating mitigation, without going beyond the limits of science. 
  • Part IV explores the broader implications of the Supreme Court’s developmental framework for juvenile sentencing and parole, implications that have already sparked law reforms beyond the relatively narrow holdings of Graham and Miller.
  • Finally, the paper ends on a cautionary note, pointing to evidence that constitutionally sound, developmentally-based policies may be vulnerable to political and other pressures. Aside from mandates in the holdings themselves, reforms can be dismantled or discounted if conditions change. Measures to sustain the current trend in law reform are discussed. 

The preparation of the report and accompanying briefs was supported through Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice, an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

Read all the briefs related to the full report. 


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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.

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