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Juvenile Sentencing Laws

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws that mandate life sentences for juveniles. The Court has evolved rather quickly on the issue of whether people should receive death sentences of life without the possibility of parole for heinous crimes they committed as juveniles.

Just seven years ago, in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons that sentencing individuals to death for crimes they committed as youths constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. Thus, the juvenile death penalty was abolished.

Five years later, in 2010, the Court held in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence individuals under the age of 18 to life without parole in non-homicide cases. Thereafter, juveniles could only be sentenced to life without parole for crimes involving murder.

Now in 2012, the Supreme Court held in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for crimes committed under the age of 18 violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, the Court extended its ruling in Graham v. Florida to all juvenile offenders.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are now scrambling to figure out what to do with the 470 state inmates now serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, as the Miller decision may be declared retroactive.