Miller v. Alabama: Children Condemned To Die In Prison

mandatory death-in-prison sentences for children
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Photos: EJI\YouTube

Ten years ago, EJI won a landmark ruling from the United States Supreme Court that struck down mandatory death-in-prison sentences for children and led to relief for thousands of people who were condemned as children to die in prison.

The Court ruled on June 25, 2012, in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose a life-without-parole sentence on a child under age 18 without considering the unique status of children and their potential for change.

Thousands of children who were automatically condemned to die in prison for juvenile offenses have been resentenced because of Miller.

And in the decade since the decision, more than 880 people sentenced as children to die in prison have been released, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

The Road to Miller

EJI has been advocating for children prosecuted as adults since our founding in 1989, when Alabama was on its way to becoming the nation’s per capita leader in sentencing children to die in the electric chair.

After the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons banned the death penalty for children in 2005, EJI began investigating how many children had been sentenced to die in prison through life-without-parole sentences.

We found that children as young as 13 had been sentenced to die in prison. And 70% of those 14 or younger who were sentenced to die in prison were children of color.

We released the striking results in a report, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison, which documented 73 cases nationwide where children 13 and 14 years old were condemned to imprisonment until death.

The report became the foundation for EJI’s nationwide litigation campaign to challenge death-in-prison sentences imposed on children.

In 2009, we argued in the Supreme Court that the Constitution forbids sentencing children to die in prison.

On May 17, 2010, the Court in Graham v. Florida barred life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses. The Court recognized that the ways in which children are different from adults have to be considered in sentencing. Since 2010, we have successfully represented children across the country to obtain new sentences.

Miller v. Alabama

We went back to the Supreme Court after Graham to argue that sentencing kids to die in prison is unconstitutional regardless of the offense.

In 2012, the Court in Miller v. Alabama struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger. It ruled that the Constitution requires sentencers to take into account the characteristics that distinguish children from adults:

First, children have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.

Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,” including from their family and peers; they have limited “contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.

And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].”

These distinctive attributes of youth render children “less deserving of the most severe punishments,” the Court held, even when they commit terrible crimes.

“[G]iven all that we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change,” the Court wrote in Miller, “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

Related Resource: Children in Adult Prison

On January 25, 2016, the Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applies retroactively and requires new sentencing hearings for everyone serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for an offense when they were under 18. Montgomery reaffirmed that life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for all but the rare juvenile for whom rehabilitation is impossible.

Miller also sparked major legislative change as lawmakers across the country responded to the ruling by passing new laws limiting excessive sentences for children.

Today, a majority of states have rejected death-in-prison sentences for children. A total of 32 states and the District of Columbia ban juvenile life-without-parole sentences or have no one serving a juvenile life-without-parole sentence.

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