Bryan StevensonThe Supreme Court’s announcement of its much-anticipated combined opinion in the two cases Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs on June 25 proved to be a vindication for Professor Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who argued before the Court in March that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder violate the Eighth Amendment.

The opinion in the 5-4 decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, invoked Graham v. Florida as precedent. The Graham ruling, which echoed Stevenson’s reasoning in a related case argued the same day as Graham, rendered unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences for juveniles found guilty in non-homicide cases. The Court’s new opinion extends that argument to homicide convictions: “While Graham’s flat ban on life without parole was for nonhomicide crimes, nothing that Graham said about children is crime-specific.” Stevenson had pointed in his argument to evidence indicating that children differ significantly from adult offenders in terms of level of maturity and a sense of responsibility. Graham’s own precedent was Roper v. Simmons, a 2005 opinion abolishing the death penalty for juveniles.

Kagan cited “two strands of precedent” from the earlier cases that informed the Miller ruling: bans on sentencing that does not sufficiently consider the culpability of a class of offenders (such as juveniles) in determining the severity of a sentence, and Graham’s finding that life-without-parole juvenile sentences share key characteristics with the death penalty: “Those cases have emphasized that sentencers must be able to consider the mitigating qualities of youth.”

The controversial nature of the closely decided ruling spawned three separate dissenting opinions. Justice Samuel Alito took the relatively uncommon step of reading his dissent from the bench. Near the beginning of his opinion, Alito argued: “Even a 17½-year-old who sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a ‘child’ and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society. Nothing in the Constitution supports this arrogation of legislative authority.”

"This is an important win for children," said Stevenson in a statement. "The Court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don't allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change. The Court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”

Posted on June 25, 2012