Friday, June 13, 2014
While some heralded the recent United States Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision — forbidding mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles — as a step in the right direction for protecting the interests of juveniles within the adult criminal justice system, the decision is also a step backwards for the ability states to sentence their criminals as they sees fit and a deviation from previous sentencing precedent. This, combined with the Court’s reliance on scientific data about the maturation process of adolescents, the integrity of which has been called into question, has led to some lower jurisdictions to circumvent the decision.
The majority aimed to recognize the differences between those under and over eighteen, and to treat those under eighteen with more compassion. However, the decision ignored both the needs of society that are served by ensuring victims have peace of mind and that some crimes are so heinous the perpetrators do not deserve of leniency. This Comment argues the Court spoke too broadly applying its rule to all minors.
This essay will first summarize the Supreme Court’s previous sentencing precedent, the cases that paved the way for the Miller decision — establishing that “children are different,” — and then the Miller decision. Next, it will highlight the troubles lower courts have faced in trying to implement the decision, the flaws in, and alternative interpretations of, the science relied upon, and then turn to the question of whether juveniles over the age of sixteen have reached sufficient maturity as to allow the system to hold them as accountable as adults for homicide crimes. In response to the likelihood that those sixteen and over are sufficiently mature, this Comment will propose a way to preserve deference to the various state legislatures’ sentencing decisions while addressing increasing concern that juveniles should be treated differently. The Miller pre-sentencing evaluation factors should only apply categorically to those under sixteen, and those sixteen and seventeen in cases where the juvenile offender is quite young or possesses what the Court calls twice-diminished culpability: where the system convicted the offender under an aiding and abetting or accomplice theory, or felony murder.