US Supreme Court strikes down mandatory LWOP for juvenile murderers

26 June 2012

On 25th June 2012 the United States Supreme Court held in the case of Miller v Alabama, heard together with Jackson v Hobbs a case from Arkansas, that a sentencing scheme that mandates a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders (both aged 14 at the date of conviction) who commit murder breaches the prohibition in the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution on cruel and unusual punishments and was accordingly unconstitutional.

This decision is a welcome affirmation of the principles established first in the decision of the Supreme Court in Roper v Simmons 543 U.S. 551 (2005) which outlawed the death penalty for juveniles convicted of capital murder and Graham v Florida 560 U.S. (2010) in which the Supreme Court held that a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile who committed a non-homicide crime also violated the 8th Amendment.

As in the two preceding cases the Supreme Court recognised that children have to be treated differently from adults in sentencing, that they lack maturity and have an under-developed sense of responsibility and are less able to extricate themselves from horrific crime-producing settings. Crucial to the issue of rehabilitation the court held that because the character of a child is less well developed than an adult and their traits “less fixed” their actions are less likely to be “œevidence of irretrievable depravity”.The case of Graham insisted that youth matters when determining the propriety of a lifetime of incarceration without the possibility of parole. The mandatory penalty schemes at issue in the two cases before the Court prevented the sentencer from considering youth and from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment was a proportionate punishment for a juvenile offender.

Garden Court North Chambers’ Mark George QC assisted with the drafting of an amicus curiae brief. It was filed on behalf of a number of international bodies, including the Bar Human Rights Committee and the Law Society of England and Wales, in support of the main petition and which argued the international perspective as well as citing the law in England and Wales on the sentencing of juveniles convicted of murder.

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