Miller v. Alabama
567 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
In each of two underlying cases, a 14-year-old was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The highest courts of Alabama and Arkansas upheld the sentences. The Supreme Court reversed. The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. Their lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility lead to recklessness, impulsiveness, and heedless risk-taking. They are more vulnerable to negative influences and lack ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. A child’s actions are less likely to be evidence of irretrievable depravity. The mandatory penalty schemes at issue prevent the sentencing court from considering youth and from assessing whether the harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender. Life-without-parole sentences share characteristics with death sentences, demanding individualized sentencing. The Court rejected the states’ argument that courts and prosecutors sufficiently consider a juvenile defendant’s age, background and the circumstances of his crime, when deciding whether to try him as an adult. The argument ignores that many states use mandatory transfer systems or lodge the decision in the hands of the prosecutors, rather than courts.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

MILLER v. ALABAMA

certiorari to the court of criminal appeals of alabama

No. 10–9646. Argued March 20, 2012—Decided June 25, 2012 [ 1 ]

In each of these cases, a 14-year-old was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In No. 10−9647, petitioner Jackson accompanied two other boys to a video store to commit a robbery; on the way to the store, he learned that one of the boys was carrying a shotgun. Jackson stayed outside the store for most of the robbery, but after he entered, one of his co-conspirators shot and killed the store clerk. Arkansas charged Jackson as an adult with capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, and a jury convicted him of both crimes. The trial court imposed a statutorily mandated sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Jackson filed a state habeas petition, arguing that a mandatory life-without-parole term for a 14-year-old violates the Eighth Amendment. Disagreeing, the court granted the State’s motion to dismiss. The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed.

          In No. 10−9646, petitioner Miller, along with a friend, beat Miller’s neighbor and set fire to his trailer after an evening of drinking and drug use. The neighbor died. Miller was initially charged as a juvenile, but his case was removed to adult court, where he was charged with murder in the course of arson. A jury found Miller guilty, and the trial court imposed a statutorily mandated punishment of life without parole. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, holding that Miller’s sentence was not overly harsh when compared to his crime, and that its mandatory nature was permissible under the Eighth Amendment.

Held: The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Pp. 6−27.

     (a) The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.” Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 . That right “flows from the basic ‘precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’ ” to both the offender and the offense. Ibid.

     Two strands of precedent reflecting the concern with proportionate punishment come together here. The first has adopted categorical bans on sentencing practices based on mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of a penalty. See, e.g., Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U. S. 407 . Several cases in this group have specially focused on juvenile offenders, because of their lesser culpability. Thus, Roper v. Simmons held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children, and Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. ___, concluded that the Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a nonhomicide offense. Graham further likened life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty, thereby evoking a second line of cases. In those decisions, this Court has required sentencing authorities to consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing him to death. See, e.g., Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280 (plurality opinion). Here, the confluence of these two lines of precedent leads to the conclusion that mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment.

     As to the first set of cases: Roper and Graham establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. Their “ ‘lack of maturity’ ” and “ ‘underdeveloped sense of responsibility’ ” lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U. S., at 569. They “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,” including from their family and peers; they have limited “contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And because a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s, his traits are “less fixed” and his actions are less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].” Id., at 570. Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.

     While Graham’s flat ban on life without parole was for nonhomicide crimes, nothing that Graham said about children is crime-specific. Thus, its reasoning implicates any life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile, even as its categorical bar relates only to nonhomicide offenses. Most fundamentally, Graham insists that youth matters in determining the appropriateness of a lifetime of incarceration without the possibility of parole. The mandatory penalty schemes at issue here, however, prevent the sentencer from considering youth and from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender. This contravenes Graham’s (and also Roper’s) foundational principle: that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.

     Graham also likened life-without-parole sentences for juveniles to the death penalty. That decision recognized that life-without-parole sentences “share some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences.” 560 U. S., at ___. And it treated life without parole for juveniles like this Court’s cases treat the death penalty, imposing a categorical bar on its imposition for nonhomicide offenses. By likening life-without-parole sentences for juveniles to the death penalty, Graham makes relevant this Court’s cases demanding individualized sentencing in capital cases. In particular, those cases have emphasized that sentencers must be able to consider the mitigating qualities of youth. In light of Graham’s reasoning, these decisions also show the flaws of imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juvenile homicide offenders. Pp. 6−17.

     (b) The counterarguments of Alabama and Arkansas are unpersuasive. Pp. 18–27.

               (1) The States first contend that Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U. S. 957 , forecloses a holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment. Harmelin declined to extend the individualized sentencing requirement to noncapital cases “because of the qualitative difference between death and all other penalties.” Id., at 1006 (Kennedy, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). But Harmelin had nothing to do with children, and did not purport to apply to juvenile offenders. Indeed, since Harmelin, this Court has held on multiple occasions that sentencing practices that are permissible for adults may not be so for children. See Roper, 543 U. S. 551 ; Graham, 560 U. S ___.

     The States next contend that mandatory life-without-parole terms for juveniles cannot be unconstitutional because 29 jurisdictions impose them on at least some children convicted of murder. In considering categorical bars to the death penalty and life without parole, this Court asks as part of the analysis whether legislative enactments and actual sentencing practices show a national consensus against a sentence for a particular class of offenders. But where, as here, this Court does not categorically bar a penalty, but instead requires only that a sentencer follow a certain process, this Court has not scrutinized or relied on legislative enactments in the same way. See, e.g., Sumner v. Schuman, 483 U. S. 66 .

     In any event, the “objective indicia of society’s standards,” Graham, 560 U. S., at ___, that the States offer do not distinguish these cases from others holding that a sentencing practice violates the Eighth Amendment. Fewer States impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juvenile homicide offenders than authorized the penalty (life-without-parole for nonhomicide offenders) that this Court invalidated in Graham. And as Graham and Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U. S. 815 , explain, simply counting legislative enactments can present a distorted view. In those cases, as here, the relevant penalty applied to juveniles based on two separate provisions: One allowed the transfer of certain juvenile offenders to adult court, while another set out penalties for any and all individuals tried there. In those circumstances, this Court reasoned, it was impossible to say whether a legislature had endorsed a given penalty for children (or would do so if presented with the choice). The same is true here. Pp. 18–25.

               (2) The States next argue that courts and prosecutors sufficiently consider a juvenile defendant’s age, as well as his background and the circumstances of his crime, when deciding whether to try him as an adult. But this argument ignores that many States use mandatory transfer systems. In addition, some lodge the decision in the hands of the prosecutors, rather than courts. And even where judges have transfer-stage discretion, it has limited utility, because the decisionmaker typically will have only partial information about the child or the circumstances of his offense. Finally, because of the limited sentencing options in some juvenile courts, the transfer decision may present a choice between a light sentence as a juvenile and standard sentencing as an adult. It cannot substitute for discretion at post-trial sentencing. Pp. 25−27.

No. 10−9646, 63 So. 3d 676, and No. 10−9647, 2011 Ark. 49, ___ S. W. 3d ___, reversed and remanded.

     Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Sotomayor, J., joined. Roberts, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined.

Notes

1  Together with No. 10–9647, Jackson v. Hobbs, Director, Arkansas Department of Correction, on certiorari to the Supreme Court of Arkansas.

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