Miller v. Alabama and Juvenile Life Without Parole Laws

Anne Teigen 5/12/2021

Overview

Significant court rulings during the past decade continue to reshape juvenile justice policy.

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons that the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits juveniles from being sentenced to death for crimes they committed before they reached age 18. Five years later the court abolished the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for youth convicted of nonhomicide crimes in Graham v. Florida.

Building on these two cases, the court in 2012 abolished mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole in Miller v. Alabama. The court in Miller ruled that while sentences of life without parole were still permissible, they could only be imposed after judicial consideration of the individual circumstances and the court must consider the offender’s maturity level.

On January 25, 2016, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its 2012 Miller decision which struck down mandatory life imprisonment terms without parole for juveniles must be applied retroactively. States are not required to re-litigate sentences in each case where juveniles received a mandatory sentence of life without parole, but a state must permit juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole.

In Jones v. Mississippi the U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 that sentencing a juvenile convicted of homicide to life without parole doesn’t require a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility or an on-the-record explanation with an implicit finding of permanent incorrigibility.

Near the end of the majority opinion Justice Kavanaugh opines that states can pass laws that offer juvenile homicide offenders protections beyond what the federal constitution requires:

"Importantly, like Miller and Montgomery, our holding today does not preclude the States from imposing additional sentencing limits in cases involving defendants under 18 convicted of murder. States may categorically prohibit life without parole for all offenders under 18. Or States may require sentencers to make extra factual findings before sentencing an offender under 18 to life without parole.”

"Or states may direct sentencers to formally explain on the record why a life-without-parole sentence is appropriate notwithstanding the defendant’s youth. States may also establish rigorous proportionality or other substantive appellate review of life-without-parole sentences. All of those options, and others, remain available to the states." For more information see NCSL's blog post. 

Juvenile Life Without Parole

During the time of the Miller ruling, 28 states had mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences that were in conflict with the Supreme Court ruling. In the four years since Miller, 14 of those original 28 states have enacted laws to be in compliance with federal law.

The laws vary as to how many years a juvenile must serve before being eligible for parole review. On one side of the spectrum, Nebraska and Texas require 40 years to be served before parole review, with three states—Louisiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania—setting it at 35 years. Seven states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, North Carolina, Utah, Washington and Wyoming—require that 20 to 30 years be served, Nevada has set it between 15 and 20 years, and California and West Virginia set it at 15 years. In Iowa, South Dakota and Vermont, an amount is not specified, with judges given discretion in setting the term. Twenty four states and the District of Columbia, seen in the map below, have laws that completely abolish juvenile life without parole.

Abolished Juvenile Life Without Parole

Additional Resources