SCOTUS Rules Mandatory Juvenile Sentencing Practice Unconstitutional

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Pixabay


By Kyle Steenland, Staff Writer

Within our criminal justice system, the mental capacity of the offender, and its role in the commission of a crime, is paramount for the judiciary in arriving at a sentencing verdict that benefits both society and the offender.

In a situation where someone lacks in mental capacity due to age or disability, however, the judiciary has struggled with the challenge of finding an appropriate sentence — as a lack of capacity comes with a lack of culpability. Traditionally, mandatory sentencing laws have helped ease this struggle, but recently, the Supreme Court has begun striking down these laws, with rippling implications.

The prohibition against juveniles serving mandatory life sentences has its roots in Graham v. Florida.[1] It was here that the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, by way of mandatory statute, was in violation of the juvenile’s Eighth Amendment rights. At the time, however, this ruling was limited to offenses outside homicide, but it nonetheless opened the door to the discussion on the mental capacity of juveniles and its role in the commission of criminal acts.

In less than three years, the Supreme Court would rule once again on the topic of a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, but this time, for homicide-related offenses. In Miller v. Alabama,[2] the court found these types of mandatory sentencing practices to be unconstitutional.

In addition to citing Graham, the Court recognized the underdevelopment of the juvenile brain and the central role it plays in the decision-making process undergone in the commission of a criminal act. Furthermore, it raised the argument that the state cannot impose one of its most severe penalties on a juvenile and simply disregard the juvenile aspect of the offender. As such, mandatory policies of life without the potential of a parole hearing is entirely unconstitutional. But, what happens to those who were previously sentenced under the old law?[3]

This question of retroactivity that gave rise to Montgomery v. Louisiana.[4] Once again making its way to the Supreme Court, it was found that Miller created a substantive rule that was to be retroactively applied. One might raise the notion of the burden that this would place on the states that had sentenced individuals under such a policy. The Supreme Court felt that this retroactivity would not be a significant burden, as the states only needed to grant parole hearings to affected individuals.

This means that thousands of individuals across the country will now be granted an opportunity that has been lost to them for years. Although these individuals are not guaranteed to be granted parole, a decision that is left to the discretion of the parole board, it still has given many hope at having lives outside prison.

The underlying reasoning regarding the Supreme Court’s rulings in these cases is that the juvenile offenders — due to their lack of physical and intellectual development — do not have the mental capacities to warrant punishments as severe as lifetime incarceration.

This trend of questioning possession of capacity raises a debate that ties human biology and legal implications together. It questions the validity of our age of majority. In a society that is slowly shifting toward evaluating the actual capacity of an individual, what role should an arguably arbitrary number play in determining the consequences of our behavior? What about someone who shares in the same capacity of a juvenile but who does not commit their crime prior to their eighteenth birthday?

If science could show they do not possess the necessary capacity to be fully culpable for their actions, could they then be tried with the same expectations as a juvenile offender? Certainly only time will tell. But the door to discussion on capacity is widening by the day, and the pendulum of justice is swinging in favor of the juvenile.



[1] Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 48, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 2017 (2010).

[2] Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).

[3] Id.

[4] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 723 (2016).

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