By Sarah Alice Brown
Significant court rulings at the federal level during the past decade continue to reshape juvenile justice policy across the nation as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly prohibited the most serious punishments for juvenile offenders.
In 2005, the court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence to death a juvenile who is under age 18 at the time of his or her crime.
Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, the court abolished sentences of life without the possibility of parole for youth convicted of crimes other than homicide. Building on these two cases, in 2012, the court abolished mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole in Miller v. Alabama. Central to and cited in all three cases was the latest science on adolescent developmental research distinguishing juveniles from adult offenders.
The Miller ruling only applied to ongoing and future cases and left the issue of retroactivity to the states. However, on Jan. 25, 2016, four years after the Miller ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller must be applied retroactively nationwide to people serving mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences. States are not required to relitigate sentences in each case where juveniles received a mandatory sentence of life without parole, but a state may choose either to hold resentencing hearings for each of the juvenile homicide offenders or keep their current sentences in place, but give them the opportunity for a parole hearing.
These Supreme Court rulings establish a new constitutional principle—that “children are different” for purposes of criminal punishment. Under the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative, a recent report, “The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing,” is a new resource for lawmakers on the key issues facing legislatures following the Supreme Court’s decisions on juvenile sentencing. The report provides the constitutional sentencing framework, embodying the key elements of the court’s analysis and details how legislatures and courts have responded through reforms of state laws regulating juvenile life without parole.
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.
Sarah Brown manages the juvenile justice work in NCSL's Criminal Justice program.