By Jay Perry
On Monday the Supreme Court issued a ruling on Miller v.Alabama, a case previous discussed here. The case involved two fourteen year old defendants who had been mandatorily sentenced to life without parole after they were convicted of murder. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the imposition of mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the 8th Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment”. The decision (and its announcement) is particularly interesting for two reasons: the dissents were particularly vigorous and the media coverage surrounding the decision misstated the holding of the case.
The decision came complete with three separate dissenting opinions authored by Justices Roberts, Alito, and Thomas. These dissents demonstrate that there was strong disagreement among the Justices about this case. In particular, Justice Alito read his dissent from the bench, an unusual occurrence that seems to demonstrate extremely strong disagreement with the majority ruling.
Chief Justice Roberts cited the fact that there are currently an estimated 2,500 juveniles serving such sentences and that a majority of states impose such mandatory sentences. Thus, part of his argument is that they are in no way “unusual”. In the end he concludes that although there may be moral arguments against mandatory life sentences, there are not good legal ones and hence it “is not our decision to make.” This argument for judicial restraint, which is echoed in all of the dissents, is interesting because it often is used inconsistently by members of the Court. After all, it was Chief Justice Roberts who wrote the majority opinion in Citizens United, explicitly overturning Supreme Court precedent from twenty years earlier.
Also worth highlighting is the inaccuracy of much of the media coverage regarding the decision. Many of the headlines read that the Supreme Court had banned life sentences for juveniles (examples here, here, and here). That was not what the Court ruled however, what they said was unconstitutional was the mandatory imposition of life without parole sentences. States are still free to sentences juveniles to these sentences but must take into account their age and circumstances before doing so. Many of the news accounts mention this in the body of the article which begs the question of why the inaccurate headlines? It is just sloppy reporting or an attempt to oversimplify what happened? It is important with the Supreme Court so prominent recently in public discourse that coverage of their decisions is accurate.
As to the ruling itself, it makes good sense. Juveniles are different from adults, we all understand this. If a juvenile convicted of murder is mandatorily sentenced, it ensures that their age or mitigating circumstances are never taken into account during the process. Once prosecutors make the decision to try them as adults their individualized circumstances are not considered. Under this scheme, juries cannot consider their age or mitigating circumstances, their focus is on guilt or innocence. All criminal punishment rests of a framework of moral reckoning, an understanding that we as a society are punishing an individual for their morally culpable behavior. Because of circumstances often beyond their control and which they cannot escape, juveniles can be less morally culpable. When we sentence them, we should consider not only the terrible crimes they have committed but their entire story, to do less is dehumanizing.