By: Kierra Brown
The Eighth Amendment provides that, “excessive bail should not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted this to mean that punishments must be proportionate to both the offense and the offender. Proportionality is ever changing, as is modern society’s understanding of human decency and morality. For example, it was common for a thief in Ancient Egypt to have his hand severed as punishment; whereas, modern society views restitution and imprisonment as more proportionate punishments for such crimes. However, adults do not have a monopoly on criminal activity and it is increasingly difficult to determine how juvenile punishments should differ from those of adults.
The Supreme Court has been forced to face the troublesome anomaly of juvenile punishments several times in recent years. The Court has delineated three significant ways in which children are constitutionally distinguishable from adults. Children have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures. Additionally, their characters are not as well formed as adults. These factors led the Court to reason that a child has a diminished moral culpability and a higher capacity for change than adults, which should be taken into account at the time of sentencing. Relying on this rationale in 2005, the Court found that sentencing juveniles to death constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Because this ruling left life without parole as the most severe punishment a juvenile could receive, the Court later held that this sentence should be limited exclusively to juveniles convicted of homicide.The Court did not stop there.
Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) gave the Supreme Court yet another opportunity to continue its work in defining constitutional punishments for juveniles convicted of serious crimes. In Miller, the Court held that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole also constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Court likened life without parole to the death penalty because a juvenile subjected to that punishment effectively forfeits the remainder of his life. Not to mention, he will likely spend more time imprisoned than an adult with the same sentence. Therefore, the punishment is not proportionate to the offender. The Court now requires sentencing judges to consider a juvenile’s age, family and home environment, mental and emotional development, the circumstances of the crime, as well as familial and peer pressures during sentencing. Only the rarest juvenile whose crime reflects irreparable corruption, may be sentenced to life without parole.
In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), the Court found that Miller deprived states the ability to sentence all but the rarest juvenile to life without parole and therefore, created a substantive rule. A rule is considered substantive if it prohibits a category of punishment for a certain class of defendants because of their status. The Constitution requires substantive rules apply to cases closed at the time the rule was promulgated. Across thirty-two states, there are approximately 2,500 individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. The vast majority (2,100) of whom were sentenced mandatorily. The Court explicitly stated that re-sentencing these individuals is unnecessary. Rather, Miller is satisfied when each individual receives a meaningful opportunity for release during which he can provide evidence that he has changed and that his crimes did not reflect irreparable corruption.
In an ideal world, each state would have taken significant and proactive steps to comply with Miller and Montgomery. Unfortunately, thirty-two states continue to allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole. While others have actively resisted by enacting laws, which require juveniles to serve excessive minimum terms before being eligible for parole. These statutes thoroughly disregard the spirit of Miller. States should refrain from finding procedural ways to limit the applicability of Miller and Montgomery. In both cases, the Court considered the states’ limited resources and suggested that a meaningful opportunity for release or a parole hearing would suffice. The Court also specified that an individual’s changed nature could be proven through evidence of his behavior while incarcerated among other things.
The consequences of life without parole sentences are very real and very high. It costs approximately $34,135 annually to house a prisoner. Not to mention, most of the juveniles who received this sentence had witnessed violence regularly, grown up in poverty, had special education needs, and/or were physically or sexually abused. We must also take into account race; at least 42% of the juveniles handed this punishment are African American. This mimics the very disturbing trend of over-representation of African Americans in the criminal justice system. The continued incarceration of these individuals is against the mandate of the Supreme Court of the United States. The result will be the continued marginalization of victims of physical and sexual abuse, the working class, and the African American community. These are not excuses. These are the very real and disregarded factors in the vast majority of these individuals’ sentencing hearings. Our responsibility as a mature and moral society is to embrace justice. We must refuse to hold those who have been wronged by our penal system yesterday as beyond the grasp of justice today.