Some State Laws Slow Resentencings Despite Miller v. Alabama Decision

While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.

Evan Miller went back before a judge in his hometown of Moulton, Alabama, for a three-day resentencing hearing March 13. Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s decision is still pending.

But the Supreme Court ruling that bears Miller’s name is already bearing fruit for other Alabama inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. For them, the process can be difficult, slow and vary county by county. And thanks to a 2016 state law, they may have a long wait for a parole hearing even if they succeed.

For example, the July 31 decision declaring juvenile lifer Richard Kinder eligible for parole came nine months after a hearing before a judge in Birmingham, attorney Richard Jaffe said.

“The judge wanted to be thorough and know every inch of it — every document, every record, and there were thousands and thousands of pages,” said Jaffe, who defended Kinder in his 1984 trial and served as co-counsel in his resentencing.

Joy Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said about 70 other state inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings under the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its 2016 follow-up, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which declared the Miller ruling retroactive.

So far, 20 of them have been resentenced to life with a chance at parole, said Eddie Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

State Rep. Jim Hill, a former judge who pushed to bring Alabama’s capital sentencing law into line with the Miller decision, said he has urged his old colleagues to get on with the task at hand.

“I have certainly had judges call me and ask, ‘Do I need to have rehearings?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Sure. You must. Go ahead and schedule it and get it done,’” said Hill, a Republican who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.

Alabama’s new capital sentencing law, passed in 2016, also requires that teens convicted of capital murder serve 30 years before becoming eligible for release. Since Kinder has been imprisoned more than 30 years, he now has the right to a parole hearing, Jaffe said.

But other juvenile lifers will face more years behind bars even if they succeed in getting their chance at parole. That would include Miller himself, who was convicted in 2006.

That 30-year requirement isn’t the most stringent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. At least two states — Texas and Nebraska — require a 40-year minimum. But it’s tougher than others: West Virginia allows inmates to get a hearing after 15 years; Nevada, 20; and South Dakota leaves the issue entirely up to a judge.

And the Miller decision barred only the automatic imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a teen killer. Judges can still hand down that term after weighing the evidence. But the justices required them to consider a teen’s "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," and the follow-up Montgomery decision limits the punishment to teens whose crimes show “permanent incorrigibility.”

“It’s going to apply to the rarest of the rare cases,” Jaffe said.

Kinder has served nearly 33 years of a life-without-parole sentence for a killing committed when he was 17.

Kinder, then 17, was convicted of capital murder in the 1983 killing of 16-year-old Kathleen Bedsole during a robbery and kidnapping. As an accomplice, Kinder was spared the death penalty, but got life without parole. The 21-year-old gunman, David Duren, went to the electric chair in 2000, having dropped his appeals after a religious conversion.

Jaffe called Kinder’s resentencing “excruciating” and “heart-wrenching.” It featured testimony from Bedsole’s boyfriend, who survived his wounds that night. But guards and teachers at the prison where Kinder has been locked up testified that he has been a model prisoner. His disciplinary record includes only one infraction, and he earned a high school equivalency diploma, an associate’s degree from a community college and a trade school diploma in furniture refinishing.

In addition, Duren’s attorney signed an affidavit recounting that his client had said he made the decision to shoot Bledsoe and her boyfriend without telling Kinder, and that Kinder had told him there “was no need to shoot.” Jaffe said Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam found Kinder “was not only rehabilitatable, but had been rehabilitated.”

Pulliam has scheduled several other hearings for inmates convicted in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, said Michael Hanle, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But for convicts in other counties, there’s little movement, he said.

“We’re not quick to the table,” said Hanle, who is also Jaffe’s law partner. Rural counties especially “are not moving as quickly as in some other jurisdictions, and they’re having a little more difficult time.”

Many judges aren’t eager to reduce sentences, and defense lawyers are often court-appointed and lack the resources to assemble their case. But the biggest obstacle is time, he said.

“Some of these guys have been in prison 20, 25, 30, 35 years, and a lot has happened during that time,” Hanle said. Finding witnesses becomes harder, and it’s more difficult to present testimony that would point toward a lighter term.

“And of course, a defendant has a lifetime literally in the Department of Corrections, which comes with its ups and downs,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to do great things as far as their education, training and rehabilitation. Others have had problems, and all those things are going to be brought back up during the resentencing.”

Hill said the judges he knows “all want to follow the law, whether they like it or don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a necessity that we do it,” he added. “It’s one of those things that when you see what the situation is, you need to address it. It took us a couple of years to address it, but we did, and I’m very glad that we did.”

Miller is represented by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates are eligible for new hearings under the Miller and Montgomery decisions. It’s not clear how many of them have had those hearings, but states well beyond Alabama have been slow to schedule them, said Josh Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.  

“While there are certainly states that have sharp declines — sometimes because state supreme courts required it — in many cases, the states barely budged in the number of people serving life without parole for things they did as a juvenile,” Rovner said.

For example, Iowa has moved quickly to resentence inmates eligible for new hearings under Miller, and it has eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by juveniles altogether, Rovner said. But in Arkansas, a judge recently struck down the state’s new sentencing law because it failed to provide for individualized hearings. And the three states with the most juvenile life-without-parole sentences — Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — “really dragged their feet on this,” he said.

“The facts are rarely in question,” Rovner said. “The question is what is the juvenile’s maturity, involvement in the offense, what was his family life like — these are questions that are able to be answered.” Caseloads and procedures might move at different paces in some places, but he said waiting five years since the Miller decision “is preposterous.”  

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Evan Miller Offers Apology As Resentencing Hearing Wraps

MOULTON, Alabama — Evan Miller rose to apologize to the family of his victim “for stealing the joy from your lives” as a three-day resentencing hearing ended today.

Miller is seeking a chance at eventual release five years after his case prompted the Supreme Court to strike down automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles.

He was 14 when he killed neighbor Cole Cannon in 2003, and the statement he read this afternoon was the first acknowledgment of guilt Cannon’s family has heard.

“Your dad, Cole Cannon, didn’t deserve what happened to him,” Miller said. He added, “I’m sorry for this whole ordeal. I’m sorry for taking a huge part of your family.”

But saying that “isn’t enough,” he continued. “I want to be more. I want to do more than just an apology. To be truly sorry, you have to make amends.” He expressed hope that the “chain of pain and hatred” could be broken, “and I can make amends.  

“I’m sorry once again for stealing the joy from your lives,” he said.

Miller is asking an Alabama judge to revisit his sentence, which was automatically applied after his conviction on capital murder charges in 2006. He delivered his statement after lawyers for the Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the Supreme Court, presented their final witnesses. He didn’t give it under oath or subject to cross-examination — and Cannon’s family called it late and weak.

“That could have been done almost 14 years ago,” Cannon’s daughter, Candy Cheatham, told reporters afterward. “You can say words and not mean them, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Cheatham said Miller’s apology “is going to look good for him to say now, when he’s looking at a chance for a judge to give him a different sentence.”

“I don’t feel he accepted responsibility … I think the apology was coached, rehearsed and insincere.”

Miller, now 28, and another teen robbed Cannon and beat him with a baseball bat before they set his trailer ablaze and left him to die in the fire. Much of the testimony this week recounted Miller’s upbringing in a family rife with physical beatings, drug abuse and neglect.

The final witness, Dr. George Davis, connected that background to the development of the adolescent brain — the neuroscience that underpinned the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama and its predecessors.

Davis, the chief of psychiatry for New Mexico’s child welfare agency, said the part of the brain that guides rational decision-making doesn’t reach “dependable, functional capacity” until someone is in their late teens or early 20s. When complete, that frontal lobe and its prefrontal cortex inhibits impulsive, emotional reactions.

“You’ll get an inhibition of emotional overreaction,” he said. “You will get the capacity to plan ahead, to foresee consequences, to strategize about the best way to get something accomplished. The frontal lobe will also do things like take different kinds of facts or factors into account, compare them and decide between them.”

A 14-year-old “is still at the beginning of that process,” Davis said. And that development is complicated by neglect, abuse and drugs, which shadowed Miller’s entire life before the 2003 killing.

Under cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney questioned why Miller ended up a killer while his older brother and sister didn’t. Davis said children from the same family often react differently to the same circumstances, but boys tend to respond much more aggressively than girls. And while Miller ultimately killed a man, Davis said he saw no pattern of violence from his behavior before his arrest — and saw signs of improvement in the records when he was taken away from his family, both in a 17-month stint in foster care and after the killing.

“There are times at which I looked at Evan’s record and thought that incarcerating him probably saved his life,” Davis said.

The Miller decision barred only the automatic application of life without parole for juveniles, which means Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig could pronounce the same sentence after this week’s proceedings. State prosecutors argued Miller earned that original sentence, and it should be reaffirmed.

Craig said he won’t issue a decision this week and will need some time to review the extensive documents and reports introduced as evidence. But he pledged, “I will do my best to render a just and appropriate verdict.”

Earlier, Miller’s lawyers put on a series of witnesses to demonstrate that he should get a chance at eventual release.

Miller’s onetime foster mother, Robin Brown, testified that Miller “understands what he did and that he had to be punished for it.”

“He’s hopeful and still young and has a lot of life possibly left in him, and he’s expressed a desire to do something good with it,” Brown said. When she mentioned that one day Miller might show some “forgiveness of himself,” Cannon’s relatives exchanged disbelieving looks on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Brown’s daughter, Tiffani Alldredge, testified Tuesday that Miller, his sister and brother were the only foster kids with whom her family kept in touch. Under cross-examination, Brown said she didn’t recall a fight in which Miller choked her then-preteen daughter or comments to the family’s social workers that she was ready to “give up” on all three children. She said the fight would have been documented as a matter of routine, “and of course that would have been addressed.”

A childhood friend, Patrick Hitt, described the Miller kids’ parental supervision as “nonexistent.” The family frequently was short of food, lacked power and once nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning by trying to use a charcoal grill to heat the house indoors — a story Miller’s sister, Aubrey Goldstein, had recounted earlier.

He should have stayed in foster care,” Hitt said. “In foster care, I wasn’t going to see him every day, but I knew he was being taken care of … I think if he was in foster care, he would still be out today and doing OK.”

‘A mischievous child’

Hope Berryman, a social worker who saw Miller regularly in the months before the killing, said Miller had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity, conduct and substance abuse disorders. She called him intelligent, but less mature than other kids his age.

Both Miller and his mother would be visibly intoxicated in some of their meetings, and Miller had “explosive” emotional outbursts — but she was “shocked and disappointed” when she heard her client had been charged with capital murder.

“I had never seen any indication that Evan would have done what was done that night, and I felt disappointed that I had not been able to be more of a catalyst for change in his life,” Berryman said.

Prosecutors have tried to punch holes in the defense by pointing out Miller had racked up a series of violations in his decade-plus in prison. They include discipline for possession of contraband items like paint, cigars and cellphones, which Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney said Miller once used to send a nude video of himself to a contact outside the walls.

But David Wise, Miller’s former warden, said Miller wasn’t one of his big concerns at the maximum-security St. Clair lockup, outside Birmingham.

“Although it’s not perfect, it’s my opinion that a lot of his disciplinary history is on the lines of a mischievous child in high school,” Wise said. While Miller broke some rules, “which is not good,” he wasn’t involved in violent incidents — which Wise called “a way of life” among the prison’s roughly 1,200 inmates.

Miller is housed in an “honor dorm” for prisoners who have exhibited good behavior and have been on a maintenance detail. Barry Black, who teaches welding to inmates at St. Clair, said Miller “always has a good attitude” and is “always respectful to me and other people.”

While inmates serving life without parole aren’t eligible to take vocational classes in Alabama prisons, Black said he knew Miller because he has been on a maintenance detail at the prison, and Black has been teaching him to weld on the side.

“He came into this system at a young age. I really don’t know how he’s turned out as well as he has, to be honest with you,” Black said. He said he’s never before testified on behalf of an inmate, but “I feel like Evan deserves another chance.”

This story has been updated.

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Family of Evan Miller and His Murder Victim Testify in Resentencing

MOULTON, Alabama —In his decade-plus behind bars, teen killer Evan Miller has grown into an intelligent man hoping to one day help others in danger of repeating his mistakes, his sister testified today.

Aubrey Miller Goldstein told wrenching stories of growing up with drug-addicted parents, seemingly random beatings and a string of evictions from roach-ridden homes as Miller’s lawyers tried to win him a chance at parole one day.

“He’s remarkably well-balanced. Intelligent. Poetic,” Goldstein said. “He’s a deep thinker. He’s reflective, contemplative — and remorseful.

“He wants good to come from this,” she added. “He wants to be able to help others, to stop it before it happens. To help troubled teens, troubled youth. He would do very well.”

Miller, now 28, was the marquee name on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down automatic life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders. He was 14 when he killed a neighbor, Cole Cannon, robbing the man, setting his mobile home on fire and leaving him for dead.

He’s back before an Alabama court for resentencing this week — a painful reprise of events that have riven two families. Prosecutors hoping to keep Miller locked up for good have been sketching a portrait of an unrepentant, manipulative inmate unchanged by his years behind bars. Cannon’s family members aren’t buying any talk of repentance.

“It’s as if I keep being slapped in the face with constant, unbearable grief,” Cannon’s youngest daughter, Jodie Fuller, testified Monday.

Violence, filth, horror stories

In more than two hours of testimony, Goldstein said her father, David Miller, was a truck driver who’d spend most of the week on the road. He’d come home seething, “almost looking for something to get angry about,” and beat them with a leather belt with a heavy buckle — an accessory Goldstein said her father wore as a weapon. The boys — younger brother Evan and older brother John — occasionally got kicked with his steel-toed boots, too.

“It could happen every day. It could happen more than once a day,” she said.

Goldstein said she has a finger that doesn’t move properly due to damage to one of her knuckles from that belt. Evan, the youngest, had a seemingly permanent welt across one buttock, “the perfect shape of a belt.” Their father once killed a kitten that had urinated on the kitchen floor, slamming it against a wall and forcing his children to watch as it died.

Goldstein recounted these stories in a soft, even tone, struggling for composure only when she recounted the constant filth and roaches. The family left cleaning to her when she was barely out of kindergarten.

Miller sat tight-lipped during the proceedings, dressed in gray-and-white prison stripes. He grimaced occasionally as his sister testified, glancing occasionally at the spectators’ benches.

The family moved from house to house, racking up a chain of evictions across several north Alabama towns. Child welfare agencies in four counties had files on the family — documents that Miller’s lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative, which won the Supreme Court decision on his behalf, presented to the judge to buttress Goldstein’s testimony. The cops got called several times, including once when older brother John took refuge at a neighbor’s house and the neighbor faced their father down with a shotgun to protect him, Goldstein said.

[Related articles: ‘Get Tough,’ Then Another Positive Supreme Court Decision Drops]

But their mother repeatedly passed on pressing charges, even when her husband threatened her with a gun. Goldstein recounted hiding behind a police car after calling officers to their home in that incident, only to have the officer tell her there was nothing he could do. She was 11. Meanwhile, she said, their mother told the children horror stories about foster care to keep them from telling the truth about what was happening at home.

Foster care

The children finally were taken away when her father bruised her eye the night before Goldstein and her younger brother went to a summer camp run by child welfare authorities. They spent 17 months with a foster family – a stretch that saw the children get basics like clothes and regular meals, as well as structure and rational discipline.

“The Millers let us love them,” said Tiffani Alldredge, whose parents took in the children. “Out of all the foster siblings we ever had, they were the only ones who let us love them and loved us back.”

However, on cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney pointed to reports that Evan Miller once tried to choke Alldredge during a fight over a basketball game, and his foster parents noted in reports that the boy “lies so much I can’t believe him.” Alldredge said she didn’t remember the childhood fight.

Prosecutors also introduced Miller’s prison disciplinary record, which listed infractions for jailhouse tattoos and possession of a contraband cell phone.

While her kids were in foster care, Suzi Miller left her husband. She got supervised visits with the children, and eventually got custody of them. They went to live with her in a mobile home park where Goldstein said drug use was rampant and the home was “chaos.”

Evan had flourished in foster care and didn’t want to go back. And soon, everyone in the family was drinking, smoking pot or using speed. And that put them on a collision course with Cannon, who was trying to turn around his own struggle with alcoholism, his children testified. He’d had to sign his home over to their mother to keep the bank from taking it, leaving him renting a trailer in a mobile home park next to the Millers.

On the witness stand Monday, Cannon’s two daughters and son recounted how they’ve struggled to move on since their father’s killing — particularly since the Supreme Court tossed out Miller’s original sentence nearly five years ago, they said.

“All I have heard from EJI is, ‘Evan was just a child.’ Well, so was I,” Fuller said.

Fuller, sister Candy Cheatham and brother Sandy Cannon told of homecoming pageants, weddings and birthdays at which their father was absent, grandchildren asking about the “Pawpaw Cole” they’ll never meet.

“He has a name,” Cheatham said, looking directly at Miller. “In many documents, in many statements, in many hearings, his name has not been mentioned ... but his name was Cole Cannon. He was a person.”

Fuller said her father’s death sent her into a spiral of depression and substance abuse. But she recovered and became a police officer, and said Miller could have made similar choices. Instead, she said, her father’s killer hasn’t shown any remorse, “and I don’t think he ever will.”

“I truly believe with his lack of remorse that he will kill again if he’s ever released from prison,” Fuller said.

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U.S. Supreme Court Questions If Juvenile Killers Should be Given Second Chance

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in the cases of two offenders, sentenced at a young age to die in prison, and may choose to further limit such sentences for minors.

Kuntrell Jackson of Arkansas and Evan Miller of Alabama were both 14 years old when they were convicted of a homicide, and both were sentenced to life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP). For more on the background of their cases, click here.

A juvenile's "deficits in maturity and judgment and decision-making are not crime specific," said Bryan Stevenson, who represented both offenders. "All children are encumbered by the same barriers."

Stevenson argued that this was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the court’s other two recent cases on juvenile sentencing, Roper v Simmons and Graham v Florida.

Roper’s ban on the death penalty implicitly “acknowledged a difference in murder” between juveniles from adults in murder cases, Stevenson argued, and Graham’s abolition of LWOP sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicides distinguished the two when it came to an opportunity for parole.

In each case, the state’s sentencing structure mandated an LWOP sentence for the crimes of which the two teens were convicted. Stevenson, representing both offenders, attempted a balancing act between challenging the entire practice of juvenile LWOP sentencing and specifically attacking the mandatory sentencing structures that lead to many of those sentences.

Stevenson, the director of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, made it clear that his preference was for a categorical ban on LWOP sentences for any offender under the age of 18. Justice Samuel Alito wondered why such a ban should assist someone who is “17 years, 10 months” with “great maturity.”

Justice Antonin Scalia asked Stevenson what could reasonably replace LWOP for juveniles, suggesting the hypothetical sentence of 50 years without the possibility of parole?

"If this Court were to say we ban life without parole for these kinds of offenders, it would be somewhat problematic to suggest that we're going to get  as close to death as possible and then facilitate some kind of review," Stevenson replied.

That is already an issue that has arisen in the aftermath of the Graham case, with some Florida judges using sentences of more than 50 or 60 years to replace the LWOP sentences handed down to juvenile non-homicide offenders.

Stevenson told Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that an opinion that only rolled back the mandatory imposition of LWOP on juveniles “would not satisfy me.” But pressed by Justices Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor on what other than a categorical ban might suffice, Stevenson suggested a bifurcated decision that would split adolescents into two groups: 14 and under, and 15 to 17.

Stevenson suggested an outright LWOP ban for the teens under 15, and a requirement that LWOP for older teens could not be part of a mandatory sentencing scheme; that such a sentence would have to be subject to individual review.

Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman argued that the court should not extend past the Graham ruling on LWOP because "Graham's culpability is twice diminished: once because he was a juvenile and once because he had not committed murder," Miller, he said, is entitled only to protection from the death penalty as a juvenile.

Neiman told the court he knows of no studies that show juvenile offenders are more amenable to rehabilitation in adult correctional settings than adults are, a point that Stevenson later disputed.

The prospect for rehabilitation is an ancillary point, Neiman argued. “Retribution is the primary goal. Society doesn’t want to roll the dice on convicted murderers.”

The arguments of Stevenson and Neiman appeared stymied at times by a lack of hard data. Justices asked for, and did not receive, figures on how many juveniles received LWOP within a mandatory scheme and how many had been offered a plea before conviction.

No number was offered on the latter during arguments; Stevenson pointed out that approximately 85 percent of all juvenile LWOP sentences occurred in states where there were mandatory sentences for homicides, and Justice Stephen Breyer mentioned an estimate that 71 of the 79 LWOP offenders under 15 had received the sentence because it was mandatory.

Justice Scalia queried as to how Stevenson could argue a national consensus against sentencing juveniles to life without parole when “something like 39 states allow it?”

Stevenson then made an argument that drew quick retort from conservative justices on the bench: That most state legislators set no threshold on what age a juvenile can be transferred to adult court, which means they have not really addressed it and are perhaps even unaware that juveniles are subject to mandatory LWOP sentences.

Challenges to his assertion dominated the rest of Stevenson’s time. “If a state allows for it,” asked Chief Justice Roberts, “have they not addressed it?”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinions in Graham and Roper, also questioned Stevenson’s logic on that count.

With 2,300 juvenile LWOP inmates, “it’s difficult to suggest the legislators aren’t aware” juveniles are receiving the sentences, said Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinions in Graham and Roper. [The estimated number of inmates is actually 2,570, according to the according to The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth].

“If states don’t realize” that their juveniles can receive LWOP sentences,” Justice Alito asked, “why don’t you call them?”

Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, supported Stevenson’s position, saying that many states didn’t “give consideration to the consequences” when they toughened transfer laws in the 1990s.

In Pennsylvania, she said, “we changed our laws in 1995 and the [mandatory] sentencing schemes were already in place.”

During the hour of argument on Jackson v Hobbs, the court did not appear to take much interest in the main difference in the cases, which is that Jackson did not directly cause the death of a victim and Miller did.

The justices went straight into questions when Stevenson stood up on Jackson’s behalf, preventing him from differentiating the case from Miller, and the questions to he and Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Kent Holt focused on mandatory sentencing.

“Why couldn’t a judge have discretion at sentencing?” Kennedy asked of Holt, to which Holt pointed out that in Arkansas, the decision of a prosecutor to subject a juvenile to adult court and LWOP sentences is reviewable. [This is not the case in all states; some allow prosecutors to directly file cases in adult court].

"Isn't the life without parole special enough for an adolescent that you have to let him at least make any mitigating arguments he wants?" asked Justice Breyer, suggesting that LWOP for juveniles might warrant at least the same level of review that a death penalty sentence would for adults.

“That’s not a view that I know has been expressed,” Holt replied.

A group of former juvenile judges from around the country wrote the court in support of Miller and Jackson, arguing that they saw similar teens turn their lives around after being convicted of heinous crimes, including murder.

“Based on decades of experience sentencing juvenile offenders, [we] simply do not believe it is possible to tell which youths will change and which will not at the time of their initial sentencing,” the judges wrote in an amicus brief.

“Notwithstanding this unpredictability,” the brief adds, the judges “believe that individualized consideration is essential at the initial sentencing stage.”

The American Psychological Association (APA) argued in a brief supporting Hobbs and Jackson that younger teens are particularly susceptible to the terrible decision-making that leads to a homicide.

“Older adolescents (aged 16-17) often have logical reasoning skills that approximate those of adults, but nonetheless lack the adult capacities to exercise self-restraint, to weigh risk and reward appropriately, and to envision the future,” the APA brief stated. “Younger adolescents are thus doubly disadvantaged, because they typically lack not only those social and emotional skills but basic cognitive capabilities as well.”

The State of Michigan filed an amicus brief joined by 18 other states urging the court not to interfere with the state’s discretion to use LWOP sentences for all homicide convicts.

“This Court should not casually set aside state sovereignty and sentencing authority, particularly in a controversial area that is still subject to considerable national dialogue and debate.

Reform of juvenile sentencing should be done through democratic, not judicial, channels, the brief argues.

“Depriving American citizens of the opportunity to have a public debate comes at a high cost,” the brief stated. “If this Court holds that LWOP sentences for teenage murderers is unconstitutional, society will not have the opportunity to reach this Court’s understanding of ‘justice’ through public exchanges of information and discussion.”

John DiIulio, a former Princeton professor and faith-based leader in the George W. Bush Administration, predicted a wave of young “super-predators” in the mid-1990s, a prediction that prompted researcher James Alan Fox of Northeastern University to suggest that states include harsher sentences for violent young offenders.

Both signed onto an amicus brief in support of Miller and Jackson, and the brief specifically acknowledged their reticence for earlier forecasts.

“The prediction of a juvenile super-predator epidemic turned out to be wrong; in fact, there was no super-predator generation,” the brief stated. “Professor DiIulio, the original proponent of the juvenile super-predator notion and a signatory to this brief, has repudiated the idea and expressed regret, acknowledging that the prediction was never fulfilled.

“Professor James Fox, who urged that Professor DiIulio’s predictions should drive changes in sentencing laws, also has repudiated the notion of the super-predator and is a signatory to this brief.”

The High Court Should Hold to Constitutional Principle and End Juvenile Life Without Parole

Seven years ago, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized fundamental differences between children and adults that bear directly on the issue of culpability to outlaw imposition of the death penalty for any crime committed by a defendant younger than 18. Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, it relied on the same principles to ban life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

Next week, the Supreme Court will consider whether those principles must once again render a life-without-parole sentence unconstitutional for youth convicted of homicide offenses when it hears the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were both sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed when they were 14.  Because there is no scientific, legal or practical reason to disregard the findings in Roper and Graham, the established constitutional law must prevail and life-without-parole sentences for all teenagers, including Jackson and Miller, must be prohibited as excessive.

Life imprisonment without parole, which discounts any possibility for rehabilitation, is a severe sentence for any offender. For a teenager, it is an extraordinary punishment in both length and psychological severity. And yet sentencing laws in many states make it possible for children to be locked away forever without any opportunity for release.

In most areas of the law, minors are treated with special solicitude and graduated responsibility. State laws prevent youths under 18 from voting, serving on juries or in the military, drinking alcohol, or marrying without parental consent. These protections are in place because teenagers are biologically and psychologically different than adults. Scientific research on adolescent development bolsters the commonsense understanding that teenagers lack self-control, are vulnerable to environmental pressures, and have fewer life experiences on which to draw in evaluating the consequences of their actions.

Developmental psychologists who have methodically studied the normative development of youth have consistently found deficiencies in the decision-making capacities of youth, especially in fast-paced, stressful circumstances.  Studies in cognitive development indicate that youth often lack the capacity to process information, conceptualize future consequences and engage in logical reasoning.  More recent studies in neurological development, as cited by the American Medical Association, have confirmed that areas of the brain that control logical reasoning and responsible decision-making are the last to mature and develop.

Even when a youth’s cognitive capacity begins to approximate that of an adult, psychosocial features of adolescence – such as impulsivity, peer influence and risk-taking - continue to impede decision-making throughout adolescence.  Deficiencies in psychosocial development mean that youth are driven by circumstances and impulses, have difficulty regulating their moods and emotions, and are vulnerable to the influence of their peers.

Fortunately, adolescence is not the end of the life story.  The same immaturity and flexibility that make youth more susceptible to peer influences and other environmental circumstances also make them quite resilient and capable of remarkable change.  Because their characters are not fully formed and their capacity for change and rehabilitation is great, children are a work in progress.

It is that possibility for change, together with a national consensus against indefinite, irrevocable punishments for children and the developmental justifications for finding youth less morally and legally culpable, that led the Supreme Court to narrow the scope of constitutionally acceptable punishments for juvenile offenders over the past decade.

The logical underpinnings of Graham and Roper extend to juveniles convicted of homicide. Youth, even those who kill, are less culpable than their adult counterparts, and as Justice Kennedy wrote in Roper, “cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders.”  Like the death penalty, life sentences without the possibility of parole are designed to deal with the most dangerous offenders who can never be rehabilitated.  Youthful offenders will likely change and should be given an opportunity to do so.  The Court's recognition of the unique characteristics of adolescence that make a permanent, irrevocable sentence excessive and unconstitutional for a child who commits a serious felony applies equally to children convicted of a homicide.

Societal consensus supports this conclusion.  Only 79 people in the United States are serving life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenses committed by youth at age 13 and 14, in only 18 states.  The vast majority of jurisdictions nationwide (32 states and the District of Columbia) have never sentenced a child aged 13 or 14 to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Adolescents who commit serious crimes simply cannot be said to have fixed, irredeemable characters.  A return to this scientifically-validated view of children should compel the Supreme Court to ban juvenile life without parole for children, regardless of offense. Such a ban would ensure that children who commit even the most regrettable acts have a meaningful opportunity for reform. The Supreme Court has taken several crucial steps down this road, and it should not reverse course now.


For more background, read our primer:

JJIE: U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Key Juvenile Cases Tuesday

To read what others are saying check out the links below:

The Guardian: What JLOWP means: Life without parole, for kids

The Washington Post: Giving jailed juveniles a second chance at life

Scientific American: Your Teen's Brain: Driving Without the Brakes

The New York Times: Juveniles Don't Deserve Life Sentences

The Christian Science Monitor: Supreme Court sizes up teens who murder

The Nation: Why Life Without Parole is Wrong for Juveniles

High Court to Rule on Constitutionality of Life Sentences for Minors Convicted of Murder

The U.S Supreme Court is set to hear two cases that will test the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles convicted of murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Last month, the nation’s highest court agreed to review Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two cases involving juveniles convicted of murder, to determine whether life imprisonment sentences for minors found guilty of homicide is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson were both found guilty of committing capital murder when they were 14.

In 2003, Miller was found guilty of beating his neighbor, Cole Cannon, with a baseball bat and subsequently setting fire to his trailer home, where Cannon died from smoke inhalation. In 1999, Jackson, then an Arkansas youth, was charged with felony murder stemming from a video store robbery, in which an accomplice shot and killed clerk Laurie Troup.

In last year’s Graham v. Florida decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences for minors convicted of crimes other than murder was a violation of the United States Constitution, and in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that executing criminals that committed crimes while under the age of 18 was a violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments. In the majority opinion of Roper v. Simmons, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote “from a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

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