The Supreme Court will take up the Eighth Amendment again this term, specifically to rule on whether the prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” allows the imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a fourteen year old convicted of homicide.
Similar issues have already been addressed by the Supreme Court in two cases, Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida. In Roper, the Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles and in Graham the Court held that a sentence of life without parole cannot be imposed on a juvenile for the conviction of a non-homicide offense. Inherent in the decision of those cases was the idea that juveniles are both more apt to be rehabilitated and morally less culpable than adults.
The Current Case (Miller v. Alabama, Jackson v. Hobbs) will probably revolve around similar arguments and is likely to be buttressed by emerging scientific evidence related to brain development. Both of the Petitioner’s briefs cite this literature in making the argument that young adolescents are particularly prone to impulsive behavior and negative peer pressure. The petitioners also cite many state and federal laws that recognize the immaturity and impulsivity of young adolescents.
Tennessee has many such examples of the special legal status of adolescents. A minor cannot apply for a marriage license without a parent’s permission. T.C.A. §36-3-106. A child under the age of 15 must wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. T.C.A. §55-52-105. Children younger than 16 have a weekday curfew of 10:00 and a weekend curfew of 11:00. T.C.A. §39-17-1702.
The two states involved in these cases (Arkansas and Alabama) have mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for first degree murder. The importance of this is that when a child is tried as an adult, their age is not taken into account either at trial or at sentencing. In Tennessee, there are three options for punishment for a first degree murder conviction; death, life imprisonment, or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The sentence is imposed at a sentencing hearing and an explicit factor considered is “the youth … of the defendant at the time of the crime.” T.C.A. 39-13-204.
The imposition of mandatory sentences is problematic in the typical case but even more so when the convicted is a young adolescent. If any determination calls out for individualized attention it is the sentencing of minor. It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court thinks, oral arguments are scheduled for March 20.