CENTER FOR JUVENILE JUSTICE

Latest Legal News

United Supreme Court Declares Mandatory Sentencing of Youth to Life Without Possibility of Parole Unconstitutional

June 25, 2012. In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional because they do not consider whether the severity of the punishment matches the offender’s responsibility for the crime. The Court concluded that juveniles are different than adults for the purpose of sentencing. Their immaturity leads to poor decision-making and an increased susceptibility to peer pressure. This lack of judgment also prevents juvenile defendants from adequately representing themselves during trial. Since juveniles change so much as they age, they are also more likely than an adult to stop engaging in criminal behavior. For these reasons, sentencing judges must have the ability to spare juvenile offenders from irreversible lifetime sentences if they believe that the offender’s participation in the crime was limited or that the offender’s traits make the imposition of life without parole undesirable.

California Appellate Court Holds "Virtual" Life-Without-Parole Sentence Imposed on 14-Year-Old Child Is Unconstitutional

(May 11, 2011)

Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) won a ruling from the California Court of Appeal yesterday striking down a 175-year sentence imposed on 14-year-old Antonio Nunez for an offense in which no one was injured. The court held that the logic of Graham v. Florida, which declared life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for children convicted of non-homicide offenses, applies to term of years sentences that are the practical equivalent of life in prison without parole. In 2007, EJI challenged the life-imprisonment-without-parole sentence imposed on 14-year-old Antonio Nunez, arguing that condemning young children to die in prison is unconstitutional.  The California Court of Appeal agreed, and in a 2009 decision, declared the sentence to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the California Constitution. After the appellate court invalidated his sentence, the trial court imposed a sentence requiring Antonio to serve 175 years before qualifying for a parole hearing, and EJI appealed.  EJI's Bryan Stevenson argued that, under the constitutional ruling in Graham and the California court's ruling in In re Nunez, there was no difference between a life-without-parole sentence and a sentence to 175 years. The appeals court agreed, finding that a "term of years effectively denying any possibility of parole is no less severe than an LWOP term." The court concluded that "[f]inding a determinate sentence exceeding a juvenile's life expectancy constitutional because it is not labeled an LWOP sentence is Orwellian. Simply put, a distinction based on changing a label, as the trial court did, is arbitrary and baseless." It reversed Antonio's sentence "because it violates the state and federal Constitutions by denying his a meaningful opportunity for release within his lifetime."

U.S. Supreme Court strikes down life imprisonment without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases

The Supreme Court issued an historic ruling in Graham v. Florida that holds life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses unconstitutional. Terrance Graham, sentenced to life without parole at 17, is now entitled to a resentencing hearing. Dozens of other juveniles sentenced to life without parole are now entitled to relief, including Joe Sullivan, whose case also was argued on this issue. In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy explained a categorical rule barring life imprisonment without parole sentences "gives all juvenile non-homicide offenders a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform. The juvenile should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential." Discussing Graham's case, the majority wrote, "[t]he State has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment does not permit."  This is a significant victory for children. The Court recognized that it is cruel to pass a final judgment on children, who have an enormous capacity for change and rehabilitation compared to adults, said Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents Joe Sullivan.  I am very encouraged by the Court's ruling. It's an important win not only for kids who have been condemned to die in prison but for all children who need additional protection and recognition in the criminal justice system. Stevenson noted that many of the people affected by the ruling do not have lawyers and will need effective legal representation for the sentencing hearings that the Court's ruling now requires. Today's decision provides juveniles sentenced to life without parole in non-homicide cases an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed but not the right to automatic release. The Court cited scientific studies showing that the same immaturity and flexibility that make teenagers more susceptible to peer pressure and external influences also make them strong candidates for rehabilitation. The majority wrote, "Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope."

(EJI)