The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Supreme Court Says Mandatory Life Sentences without Parole for Juvenile Offenders Are Cruel and Unusual Punishment

June 26, 2012 - Posted by Willie Roberson

On June 25th, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for offenders who were younger than 18 when their crimes were committed violate the Constitution’s 8th Amendment provision prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

The court’s 5-4 decision in Miller v. Alabama extends Graham v. Florida, a previous holding that addressed mandatory life without parole for juveniles in nonhomicide crimes. Miller overturns 29 state laws that require juveniles to die in prison even if a judge or jury thinks that his or her youth or unique circumstances makes a lesser sentence more appropriate.   

While the decision does not mean the end of life sentences for minors, it does establish that these verdicts should be few and far between. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, explains that, “given all that 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.”

The Leadership Conference joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, LatinoJustice/PRLDEF, and Asian American Legal Defense Fund in a friend-of-the-court brief that argued that racial stereotypes were being used to justify harsh sentences that disregarded an offender’s age and unique circumstances.

The Leadership Conference views the ruling as a significant step forward in the continuing fight against laws that disproportionately imprison and punish minority youth.

“No child should be locked away forever without a careful assessment of the interplay between their age, offense, life history, and capacity for rehabilitation,” said Debo P. Adegbile, NAACP LDF’s acting president and director-counsel, in a statement. “Today’s decision ensures that courts make sentencing rulings on an individual basis in cases involving children.”

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