In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole violates the 8th Amendment’s mandate against cruel and unusual punishments.
This is because mandatory life without parole ignores some of the central facts of being a juvenile. Not only are juveniles immature, impetuous and unable to fully appreciate risks and consequences, but they are also often trapped in dysfunctional or brutal life circumstances that they cannot reasonably escape. Even more important, juveniles are by their nature open to rehabilitation in a way that adults may not be.
We all recognize that children develop a growing sense of responsibility as they age, along with an increasing ability to resist their impulses and predict consequences. This is perhaps the main reason we differentiate juveniles from adults in our society.
The Miller ruling doesn’t forbid life sentences for juveniles altogether. Judges simply have to take into account the defendant’s youth, the nature of the offense and any mitigating factors before passing down a life sentence.
The ruling applies retroactively, so those who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole have the right to seek resentencing. However, statutes still exist that authorize life without parole for juveniles — including in the federal system.
Over the past five years, states including Utah, North Dakota and Arkansas have led the way in ending life sentences without parole for those under 18. Even in these conservative states, the prohibitions have garnered broad bipartisan support. Nineteen other states, along with the District of Columbia, now prohibit handing down a sentence to a juvenile that allows no hope for rehabilitation and release.
A bipartisan group of congressional leaders have now introduced HR 6011, which would apply the same logic to the federal justice system and prohibit sentences of life without parole and de facto versions of that sentence for juveniles.
It would also provide a mechanism for releasing people who have previously been sentenced to life as juveniles. HR 6011 doesn’t guarantee that anyone would be released. Instead, it provides up to three hearings before a judge for defendants who have now served at least 20 years of a life sentence without parole. They would have the right to counsel at these hearings.
The judge would consider factors such as the person’s maturity, rehabilitation and fitness to return to society in determining whether to release them.
It is beyond cruel to take away a young person’s entire future without any opportunity for rehabilitation to result in release. Congress needs to take up this important legislation and give deserving people a way to earn a second chance.