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Juvenile Sentencing in a Developmental Framework: The Role of the Courts

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

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Three United States Supreme Court decisions in the past decade have delineated the constitutional principle that children are developmentally different from adults in ways that matter for the fair punishment of juvenile offenders. The Court has prohibited the death penalty for juveniles and strictly limited the use of life without parole— prohibiting the sentence for non-homicide offenses and, even for homicide, requiring courts to consider mitigating factors. The Court’s developmental framework is grounded in scientific research and such bedrock principles of criminal law as proportionality, mitigation, culpability, and competence.

Some jurisdictions have used the framework to adopt further reforms in juvenile justice, including:

  • Abolishing altogether juvenile life without parole (JLWOP).
  • Revising or prohibiting mandatory minimum sentences and enhanced sentencing such as “three strikes” rules.
  • Rejecting lifetime parole and sex offender registries.
  • Reforming transfer laws.
  • Addressing expungement and the confidentiality of juvenile records.

This brief is based on the full report “The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing," available at 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 materials 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.