New York, August 17, 2012––The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this past term to reject mandatory life-without-parole-sentences is consistent with the high court’s emerging view that differentiates juveniles from adults in the criminal justice system, explained Elizabeth S. Scott, the Harold R. Medina Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.
In Miller v. Alabama, a 5-4 decision, the Court held that a state could not impose the sentence of life-without-parole against a juvenile on a mandatory basis. The majority opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, held that even in cases of homicide, the state would have to consider mitigating factors before imposing such a sentence.
“The opinion treats juveniles as a special category for Eighth Amendment review,” said Scott, the co-author of Rethinking Juvenile Justice, which was published by Harvard University Press in 2008. In many jurisdictions around the country, juveniles were treated the same way as adults from a criminal justice perspective. In considering the “distinctive attributes of youth,” the Miller ruling rejected this notion.
The majority, which included Justice Kennedy, emphasized that minors are less blameworthy than adults, and as adolescents, have much better prospects for reform.
“Miller and Graham v. Florida [a 2010 ruling] applied to non-capital sentences for juveniles the kind of analysis previously reserved for the death penalty,” explained Scott. In the past, the Court had undertaken a rigorous proportionality analysis (to determine if a sentence was excessive) only in capital sentences. When considering non-capital cases, the Court has been loath to second-guess legislatures.
In Miller and Graham, the Court created a unique status for juvenile offenders and extended the special protections it had reserved for the death penalty to juveniles sentenced to life-without-parole. “This is an unprecedented break with Eighth Amendment doctrine,” said Scott. “Justice Kagan explicitly announced that if ‘death is different, children are different too,’” she added.
Although the Court declined to bar states from imposing life-without-parole on minors altogether, it made clear that it expected such sentences to be imposed rarely.
The impact of this decision may extend far beyond the question of whether states can mandate a sentence of life-without-parole for minors. “The larger lesson of Miller,” Scott said, “is that the highest court in our country has signaled that most juveniles involved in criminal activity are less culpable than their adult counterparts, and should be dealt with more leniently.”
This principle is likely to influence both judges and lawmakers in their approach to juvenile crime, explained Scott.
Reversing a Trend
During the 1990s, many states came to view juveniles as “super predators,” explained Scott. As this mindset grew in popularity, legislatures in many states passed laws that facilitated the prosecution and sentencing of juveniles charged with crimes in the adult criminal justice system. The idea of punishing youthful offenders largely replaced attempts to reform them.
Attitudes toward juvenile offenders have changed a great deal since the ’90s, and the Supreme Court has played an important role in shaping more moderate views. Beginning in 2005, the Court has issued a series of rulings rejecting harsh sentences of juveniles. Miller represented the third seminal ruling dealing with this issue. “These opinions,” Scott added, “are a powerful repudiation of the policies established in the 1990s. The court has rejected the stereotype of young offenders as super predators, and has lent support to a very different approach to sentencing juveniles.”
Through Miller and these other recent opinions, the Court has recognized real differences between juveniles and adults when it comes to the application of criminal laws.
Use of Scientific Studies
The Miller decision is also noteworthy for the Court’s use of scientific studies in forging criminal justice policy. “This is an area where science has been uniquely influential in the policy arena and within the Supreme Court,” explained Scott.
In addition to applying a common sense understanding of adolescent immaturity, in reaching its verdict in Miller, the Court referred to studies conducted on adolescent brain development that confirmed the differences between adolescents and adults. This shift, Scott explained, represented a “much more sophisticated approach to adolescence and juvenile crime regulations” than the traditional paternalism of the early juvenile court.
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