Miller v. Alabama; Jackson v. Hobbs (2012)

___ U.S. ___ (2012)

Vote: 5 (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Kennedy, Sotomayor) 
4 (Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas)

Opinion of the Court: Kagan
Concurring Opinion: Breyer
Dissenting Opinions: Alito, Roberts, Thomas


In these cases, a 14-year-old was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In both cases, the sentencing authority did not have any discretion to impose a different punishment. State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and other characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate.

In Miller, Miller, with a friend, beat his neighbor and set fire to his trailer after an evening of drinking and drug use. The neighbor died. Miller was initially charged as a juvenile, but his case was removed to adult court, where he was charged with murder in the course of arson. A jury found Miller guilty, and the trial court imposed a statutorily mandated punishment of life without parole. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, holding that Miller’s sentence was not overly harsh when compared to his crime, and that its mandatory nature was permissible under the Eighth Amendment.

In Jackson, Jackson accompanied two other boys to a video store to commit a robbery; on the way to the store, he learned that one of the boys was carrying a shotgun. Jackson stayed outside the store for most of the robbery, but after he entered, one of the other boys shot and killed the store clerk. The state of Arkansas charged Jackson as an adult with capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, and a jury convicted him of both crimes. The trial court imposed a statutorily mandated sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Jackson argued that a mandatory life-without-parole term for a 14-year-old violates the Eighth Amendment. Disagreeing, the court granted the state’s motion to dismiss. The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed.



The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.” Roper [v. Simmons] . That right, we have explained, “flows from the basic ‘precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’” to both the offender and the offense. As we noted the last time we considered life-without-parole sentences imposed on juveniles, “[t]he concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment.” And we view that concept less through a historical prism than according to “‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’”

The cases before us implicate two strands of precedent reflecting our concern with proportionate punishment. The first has adopted categorical bans on sentencing practices based on mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of a penalty. See Graham v. Florida (2010) (listing cases). So, for example, we have held that imposing the death penalty for nonhomicide crimes against individuals, or imposing it on mentally retarded defendants, violates the Eighth Amendment. See Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008); Atkins v. Virginia (2002). Several of the cases in this group have specially focused on juvenile offenders, because of their lesser culpability. Thus, Roper held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children, and Graham concluded that the Amendment also prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a child who committed a nonhomicide offense. Graham further likened life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty itself, thereby evoking a second line of our precedents. In those cases, we have prohibited mandatory imposition of capital punishment, requiring that sentencing authorities consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing him to death. Here, the confluence of these two lines of precedent leads to the conclusion that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment. . . .

Graham concluded from this analysis that life-without parole sentences, like capital punishment, may violate the Eighth Amendment when imposed on children. To be sure, Graham’s flat ban on life without parole applied only to nonhomicide crimes, and the Court took care to distinguish those offenses from murder, based on both moral culpability and consequential harm. But none of what it said about children—about their distinctive (and transitory) mental traits and environmental vulnerabilities—is crime-specific. Those features are evident in the same way, and to the same degree, when (as in both cases here) a botched robbery turns into a killing. So Graham’s reasoning implicates any life- without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, even as its categorical bar relates only to nonhomicide offenses.

Most fundamentally, Graham insists that youth matters in determining the appropriateness of a lifetime of incarceration without the possibility of parole. In the circumstances there, juvenile status precluded a life-without-parole sentence, even though an adult could receive it for a similar crime. And in other contexts as well, the characteristics of youth, and the way they weaken rationales for punishment, can render a life-without-parole sentence disproportionate. “An offender’s age,” we made clear in Graham, “is relevant to the Eighth Amendment,” and so “criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.”. . .

But the mandatory penalty schemes at issue here prevent the sentencer from taking account of these central considerations. By removing youth from the balance—by subjecting a juvenile to the same life-without-parole sentence applicable to an adult—these laws prohibit a sentencing authority from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender. That contravenes Graham’s (and also Roper’s) foundational principle: that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.

And Graham makes plain these mandatory schemes’ defects in another way: by likening life-without-parole sentences imposed on juveniles to the death penalty itself. . . . [T]hat suggested a distinctive set of legal rules: In part because we viewed this ultimate penalty for juveniles as akin to the death penalty, we treated it similarly to that most severe punishment. We imposed a categorical ban on the sentence’s use, in a way unprecedented for a term of imprisonment. And the bar we adopted mirrored a proscription first established in the death penalty context—that the punishment cannot be imposed for any nonhomicide crimes against individuals.

That correspondence—Graham’s “[t]reat[ment] [of] juvenile life sentences as analogous to capital punishment,”—makes relevant here a second line of our precedents, demanding individualized sentencing when imposing the death penalty. InWoodson, we held that a statute mandating a death sentence for first-degree murder violated the Eighth Amendment. We thought the mandatory scheme flawed because it gave no significance to “the character and record of the individual offender or the circumstances” of the offense, and “exclud[ed] from consideration . . . the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors.” Subsequent decisions have elaborated on the requirement that capital defendants have an opportunity to advance, and the judge or jury a chance to assess, any mitigating factors, so that the death penalty is reserved only for the most culpable defendants committing the most serious offenses. . . .

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth—for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it. . . .

We therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment. Because that holding is sufficient to decide these cases, we do not consider Jackson’s and Miller’s alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles, or at least for those 14 and younger. But given all we have said inRoper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty we noted in Roper and Graham of distinguishing at this early age between “the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison. . . .

The States (along with JUSTICE THOMAS) first claim that Harmelin v. Michigan (1991) precludes our holding. The defendant in Harmelin was sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole term for possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine. The Court upheld that penalty, reasoning that “a sentence which is not otherwise cruel and unusual” does not “becom[e] so simply because it is ‘mandatory.’” . . . According to Alabama, invalidating the mandatory imposition of life-without-parole terms on juveniles “would effectively overrule Harmelin” (hereinafter Alabama Brief).

We think that argument myopic. Harmelin had nothing to do with children and did not purport to apply its holding to the sentencing of juvenile offenders. We have by now held on multiple occasions that a sentencing rule permissible for adults may not be so for children. . . . [I]f (as Harmelin recognized) “death is different,” children are different too. Indeed, it is the odd legal rule that does not have some form of exception for children. In that context, it is no surprise that the law relating to society’s harshest punishments recognizes such a distinction. Our ruling thus neither overrules nor undermines nor conflicts with Harmelin.

Alabama and Arkansas (along with THE CHIEF JUSTICE and JUSTICE ALITO) next contend that because many States impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles, we may not hold the practice unconstitutional. . . .

We do not agree; indeed, we think the States’ argument on this score weaker than the one we rejected in Graham. For starters, the cases here are different from the typical one in which we have tallied legislative enactments. Our decision does not categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime—as, for example, we did in Roper or Graham. Instead, it mandates only that a sentencer follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing a particular penalty. And in so requiring, our decision flows straightforwardly from our precedents: specifically, the principle of Roper, Graham, and our individualized sentencing cases that youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments. When both of those circumstances have obtained in the past, we have not scrutinized or relied in the same way on legislative enactments. We see no difference here.

In any event, the “objective indicia” that the States offer do not distinguish these cases from others holding that a sentencing practice violates the Eighth Amendment. In Graham, we prohibited life-without-parole terms for juveniles committing nonhomicide offenses even though 39 jurisdictions permitted that sentence. That is 10 more than impose life without parole on juveniles on a mandatory basis. And in Atkins, Roper, and Thompson, we similarly banned the death penalty in circumstances in which “less than half” of the “States that permit[ted] capital punishment (for whom the issue exist[ed])” had previously chosen to do so. So we are breaking no new ground in these cases.

[M]ost States do not have separate penalty provisions for those juvenile offenders. Of the 29 jurisdictions mandating life without parole for children, more than half do so by virtue of generally applicable penalty provisions, imposing the sentence without regard to age 13, And indeed, some of those States set no minimum age for who may be transferred to adult court in the first instance, thus applying life-without-parole mandates to children of any age—be it 17 or 14 or 10 or 6. As inGraham, we think that “underscores that the statutory eligibility of a juvenile offender for life without parole does not indicate that the penalty has been endorsed through deliberate, express, and full legislative consideration.” That Alabama and Arkansas can count to 29 by including these possibly (or probably) inadvertent legislative outcomes does not preclude our determination that mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment.

Nor does the presence of discretion in some jurisdictions’ transfer statutes aid the States here. Alabama and Arkansas initially ignore that many States use mandatory transfer systems: A juvenile of a certain age who has committed a specified offense will be tried in adult court, regardless of any individualized circumstances. Of the 29 relevant jurisdictions, about half place at least some juvenile homicide offenders in adult court automatically, with no apparent opportunity to seek transfer to juvenile court. Moreover, several States at times lodge this decision exclusively in the hands of prosecutors, again with no statutory mechanism for judicial reevaluation. And those “prosecutorial discretion laws are usually silent regarding standards, protocols, or appropriate considerations for decisionmaking.”

Even when States give transfer-stage discretion to judges, it has limited utility. First, the decisionmaker typically will have only partial information at this early, pretrial stage about either the child or the circumstances of his offense. . . .

Second and still more important, the question at transfer hearings may differ dramatically from the issue at a post-trial sentencing. Because many juvenile systems require that the offender be released at a particular age or after a certain number of years, transfer decisions often present a choice between extremes: light punishment as a child or standard sentencing as an adult (here, life without parole). In many States, for example, a child convicted in juvenile court must be released from custody by the age of 21. Discretionary sentencing in adult court would provide different options: There, a judge or jury could choose, rather than a life-without-parole sentence, a lifetime prison term with the possibility of parole or a lengthy term of years. It is easy to imagine a judge deciding that a minor deserves a (much) harsher sentence than he would receive in juvenile court, while still not thinking life-without-parole appropriate. For that reason, the discretion available to a judge at the transfer stage cannot substitute for discretion at post-trial sentencing in adult court—and so cannot satisfy the Eighth Amendment.

Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. We accordingly reverse the judgments of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and remand the cases for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


[T]oday’s decision invalidates the laws of dozens of legislatures and Congress. This Court is not easily led to such a result. Because the Court does not rely on the Eighth Amendment’s text or objective evidence of society’s standards, its analysis of precedent alone must bear the “heavy burden [that] rests on those who would attack the judgment of the representatives of the people.” If the Court is unwilling to say that precedent compels today’s decision, perhaps it should reconsider that decision.

In any event, the Court’s holding does not follow from Roper and Graham. Those cases undoubtedly stand for the proposition that teenagers are less mature, less responsible, and less fixed in their ways than adults—not that a Supreme Court case was needed to establish that. What they do not stand for, and do not even suggest, is that legislators—who also know that teenagers are different from adults—may not require life without parole for juveniles who commit the worst types of murder. . . .

Today’s decision does not offer Roper and Graham’s false promises of restraint. Indeed, the Court’s opinion suggests that it is merely a way station on the path to further judicial displacement of the legislative role in prescribing appropriate punishment for crime. The Court’s analysis focuses on the mandatory nature of the sentences in this case. But then—although doing so is entirely unnecessary to the rule it announces—the Court states that even when a life without parole sentence is not mandatory, “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” Today’s holding may be limited to mandatory sentences, but the Court has already announced that discretionary life without parole for juveniles should be “uncommon”—or, to use a common synonym, “unusual.”

Indeed, the Court’s gratuitous prediction appears to be nothing other than an invitation to overturn life without parole sentences imposed by juries and trial judges. If that invitation is widely accepted and such sentences for juvenile offenders do in fact become “uncommon,” the Court will have bootstrapped its way to declaring that the Eighth Amendment absolutely prohibits them.

This process has no discernible end point—or at least none consistent with our Nation’s legal traditions. Roper and Grahamattempted to limit their reasoning to the circumstances they addressed—Roper to the death penalty, and Graham to nonhomicide crimes. Having cast aside those limits, the Court cannot now offer a credible substitute, and does not even try. After all, the Court tells us, “none of what [Graham] said about children . . . is crime specific.” The principle behind today’s decision seems to be only that because juveniles are different from adults, they must be sentenced differently. There is no clear reason that principle would not bar all mandatory sentences for juveniles, or any juvenile sentence as harsh as what a similarly situated adult would receive. Unless confined, the only stopping point for the Court’s analysis would be never permitting juvenile offenders to be tried as adults. Learning that an Amendment that bars only “unusual” punishments requires the abolition of this uniformly established practice would be startling indeed.

It is a great tragedy when a juvenile commits murder— most of all for the innocent victims. But also for the murderer, whose life has gone so wrong so early. And for society as well, which has lost one or more of its members to deliberate violence, and must harshly punish another. In recent years, our society has moved toward requiring that the murderer, his age notwithstanding, be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Members of this Court may disagree with that choice. Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again. But that is not our decision to make. Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole. I respectfully dissent.


As I have previously explained, “the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause was originally understood as prohibiting torturous methods of punishment—specifically methods akin to those that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted” Graham (dissenting opinion). The clause does not contain a “proportionality principle.” In short, it does not authorize courts to invalidate any punishment they deem disproportionate to the severity of the crime or to a particular class of offenders. Instead, the clause “leaves the unavoidably moral question of who ‘deserves’ a particular nonprohibited method of punishment to the judgment of the legislatures that authorize the penalty.”

The legislatures of Arkansas and Alabama, like those of 27 other jurisdictions, have determined that all offenders convicted of specified homicide offenses, whether juveniles or not, deserve a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Nothing in our Constitution authorizes this Court to supplant that choice. . . .

Today’s decision invalidates a constitutionally permissible sentencing system based on nothing more than the Court’s belief that “its own sense of morality . . . pre-empts that of the people and their representatives.” Because nothing in the Constitution grants the Court the authority it exercises today, I respectfully dissent.


The Court now holds that Congress and the legislatures of the 50 States are prohibited by the Constitution from identifying any category of murderers under the age of 18 who must be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. 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.

The Court long ago abandoned the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment, holding instead that the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” embodies the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Both the provenance and philosophical basis for this standard were problematic from the start. (Is it true that our society is inexorably evolving in the direction of greater and greater decency? Who says so, and how did this particular philosophy of history find its way into our fundamental law? And in any event, aren’t elected representatives more likely than unaccountable judges to reflect changing societal standards?) But at least at the start, the Court insisted that these “evolving standards” represented something other than the personal views of five Justices. . . .

What today’s decision shows is that our Eighth Amendment cases are no longer tied to any objective indicia of society’s standards. Our Eighth Amendment case law is now entirely inward looking. After entirely disregarding objective indicia of our society’s standards in Graham, the Court now extrapolates from Graham. Future cases may extrapolate from today’s holding, and this process may continue until the majority brings sentencing practices into line with whatever the majority views as truly evolved standards of decency.

The Eighth Amendment imposes certain limits on the sentences that may be imposed in criminal cases, but for the most part it leaves questions of sentencing policy to be determined by Congress and the state legislatures—and with good reason. Determining the length of imprisonment that is appropriate for a particular offense and a particular offender inevitably involves a balancing of interests. If imprisonment does nothing else, it removes the criminal from the general population and prevents him from committing additional crimes in the outside world. When a legislature prescribes that a category of killers must be sentenced to life imprisonment, the legislature, which presumably reflects the views of the electorate, is taking the position that the risk that these offenders will kill again outweighs any countervailing consideration, including reduced culpability due to immaturity or the possibility of rehabilitation. When the majority of this Court countermands that democratic decision, what the majority is saying is that members of society must be exposed to the risk that these convicted murderers, if released from custody, will murder again.

Unless our cases change course, we will continue to march toward some vision of evolutionary culmination that the Court has not yet disclosed. The Constitution does not authorize us to take the country on this journey.