Bryan Stevenson challenges constitutionality of life without parole for juvenile homicide before Supreme Court

Bryan StevensonOn March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court heard one of the most widely anticipated oral arguments of its current term when Professor Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, argued that it is unconstitutional to sentence those convicted of homicide to life without parole for murders committed when they were under 18. (Get a student's perspective on attending Stevenson's oral arguments here.)

The two related cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, extend Stevenson’s Supreme Court argument from a 2009 case related to Graham v. Florida, in which the Court ruled that life sentences without parole for minors found guilty in non-homicide cases violated the Eighth Amendment. Graham, in turn, was preceded by Roper v. Simmons (2005), which abolished the death penalty for juveniles. Stevenson indicated that, out of roughly 2,300 U.S. inmates serving a life sentence without parole for a murder committed as a minor, 79 had been age 14 or under at the time of the crime.

The oral arguments for Miller and Jackson reflected the Court's difficulty in addressing such an emotionally charged area of criminal justice. The justices repeatedly returned to the question of how to determine a cut-off age. Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that 39 states permit life without parole for at least some juvenile-committed homicide offenses, and asked why the Court should defy what appeared to be a consensus.

Stevenson, in turn, argued that children differ fundamentally from adults in terms of mental development and the ability to foresee consequences, and thus should not be sentenced like adults.

"These deficits in maturity and judgment and decision-making are not crime-specific,” he said. “All children are encumbered with the same barriers that this court has found to be constitutionally relevant before imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty. These differences are even more pronounced in young children."

The Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion before the end of June.

Posted on March 21, 2012