This post was co-written by Laura E. Furr.
In the last decade, the Supreme Court has ruled three times on the rights of juvenile offenders to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. These cases provide important context for city leaders joining a national movement for reforming juvenile justice practices to hold youth accountable in developmentally appropriate ways.
First, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court ruled that states may not impose the death penalty on anyone who has committed a crime under the age of 18. In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for any crime except for homicide. In Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court held that a state cannot impose life in prison without parole on a juvenile without taking into consideration mitigating evidence about the offender’s age
And the Court has not finished addressing the rights of juvenile offenders. By the end of June 2016, the Court will decide whether Miller should apply retroactively to juvenile life in prison sentences issued before they originally decided the case.
Whereas the decisions in these cases and their reasoning seems straightforward, state and local implementation of these decisions often proves complex. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative recently released The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing, which discusses how to implement these decisions and provides examples of jurisdictions that have adopted juvenile sentencing reforms.
The common theme across these 5–4 decisions: that juvenile offenders have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform,” and the state should spare juveniles the death penalty and only issue sentences for life in prison without parole for the most serious crimes.
Recent and emerging brain and adolescent development research underpins this common theme, and provides crucial support for the development of policies and programs that seek to decrease juvenile crime and improve positive outcomes for young people. Juveniles lack maturity and are more vulnerable to negative influences than adults, but are more capable of reform because their character is not yet fixed.
The core principle that “children are different” – related to the common theme in the decisions — applies throughout the local legal system, including in police interactions with youth, and in local regulation of young people, such as curfew and attempts to provide services for youth in need of help.
NLC’s juvenile justice reform initiative supports city leadership of reforms that hold youth accountable in ways that reflect the reasoning of the Supreme Court in this groundbreaking series of opinions.
About the Authors:
Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.
Laura E. Furr is the program manager for justice reform and youth engagement in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Laura on Twitter at @laura_furr.