Focus on the Court: Are Kids “Different”? Juvenile Life Without Parole
Evan James Miller was raised in Alabama by a father who abused him from an early age, causing Evan to attempt suicide at least six times. In and out of foster care, Evan became addicted to drugs and was treated for multiple mental health issues. When Evan was 14 and living in a trailer park community with his family, he and a friend (age 16) spent an evening drinking and smoking marijuana with a 52-year-old neighbor. Over the course of the night, the three began to fight and Evan attacked the neighbor with a baseball bat, leaving him unconscious. In an effort to cover their tracks, the two boys set the trailer on fire and the neighbor died. Evan was charged with two counts of murder. His friend struck a deal with the police and lessened his sentencing by testifying against Evan. Evan was tried as an adult, and was given a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.
Kuntrell Jackson, born in Arkansas, also grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in an abusive home. Most of his family members had spent time in jail, and Kuntrell had served multiple sentences in a juvenile detention center. Just before his 14th birthday, Kuntrell and two older friends robbed a video rental store. After the store clerk, Laurie Troup, threatened to call the police, one of Kuntrell’s peers shot her. Due in part to his prior criminal record, Kuntrell was charged with capital murder and aggravated robbery, which leads to a mandatory sentence of life without parole in Arkansas.
Both cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, were heard at the Supreme Court this past Tuesday. The cases, which consider whether either man should have been sentenced to life without parole, pose two legal questions: Does it make a constitutional difference that the crime was murder, and is there a consensus across the country that life without parole should be eliminated as a potential sentence for minors – regardless of the severity of the crime committed?
The underlying issue—whether severe punishments, including the death penalty, life without-parole for non-homicide and life-without-parole for homicide, are constitutionally acceptable for minors—deals directly with the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” Twice before, these questions have been posed to the Supreme Court, first in the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons and again in the 2010 case Graham v. Florida. In Roper, the Court barred the death sentence for any minor convicted of murder and in Graham the Court barred a life-without-parole sentence for minors who committed crimes in which no one was killed.
Currently, there are 79 juvenile killers who have been sentenced to life without parole and will die in prison, while there are 39 states with mandatory minimum sentences for crimes resulting in murder—and these mandatory minimum sentencing policies do not contain exceptions for juveniles.
The lawyer advocating for the teens in both Miller and Jackson has attempted to focus his argument as narrowly as possible. Previous decisions about juvenile punishment have used 18 as the age barrier between juveniles and adults, but the lawyer in this case has been emphasizing just how young both men were when they committed their crimes (14 in both cases). Since 1990 a total of 3,632 youths younger than 14 have been arrested for homicide.
In the past (in Roper, in Graham, and in preliminary hearings for both of the cases at hand), justices seem to have been most convinced by the “immaturity” argument: that children and teens do not have the emotional maturity or impulse control of adults and therefore should not be punished in such a manner that, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said during Miller v. Alabama’s oral argument, “essentially makes a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”
We won’t know the conclusion of these cases until the Court releases its decision, but based on the justices’ questions during oral argument, it seems as though the decision will be a compromise. Analysts are predicting that the justices will most likely ban the use of life-without-parole as a mandatory minimum for minors convicted of murder and might ban the sentence for all crimes committed by juveniles under 12.
Keep checking RACblog for updates on this and other important Supreme Court cases.