Miller v. Alabama Essay

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In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing of juvenile criminal offenders to life in prison without parole violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision further expands a recent series of Supreme Court decisions that have held that juveniles must be treated differently than adult offenders for purposes of sentencing. Miller requires that a judge or jury weighing the imposition of a juvenile life without parole (LWOP) sentence must consider an offender’s youth and any other mitigating circumstance to make an individualized assessment of the appropriate sentence. Although the court stopped short of placing a categorical ban on a sentence of LWOP for a juvenile offender, it advised that, based on the rationales for its holding, it would be uncommon for juveniles to be sentenced to LWOP going forward.

The Defendants: Miller and Jackson

The Miller case was a consolidation of two separate appeals, both involving 14-year-olds who had been tried as adults and convicted of murder. In both cases, state homicide statutes required a mandatory LWOP sentence for those found guilty, regardless of the defendant’s age.

In 2003, Evan Miller and a friend, Colby Smith, were drinking and smoking marijuana with one of Miller’s neighbors, Cole Cannon, who eventually passed out. Cannon awoke to find the boys attempting to steal his money. When Cannon resisted, Miller (and Smith) brutally beat him with a bat. Before delivering a final blow to Cannon’s head, Miller covered him with a sheet. The boys fled the scene but returned later to set Cannon’s trailer on fire. Cannon died of smoke inhalation. Miller was tried and convicted of murder in the course of arson, triggering a mandatory LWOP sentence under Alabama law.

Kuntrell Jackson and two friends, one of whom was armed, robbed an Arkansas video store in November 1999. Although Jackson remained outside the store at the beginning of the robbery, he eventually came inside, and shortly thereafter, Jackson’s friend shot and killed the store clerk, Laurie Troup. Jackson was tried and convicted of felony murder based on his participation in the robbery (the felony) that led to Troup’s death. Jackson, like Miller, was automatically subject to a mandatory LWOP sentence because of his murder conviction.

The Supreme Court Opinion

Both defendants appealed (through their respective state courts and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court), arguing that their mandatory LWOP sentences violated the Eighth Amendment. Writing for a 5–4 majority, and weaving together two strands of Eighth Amendment precedents, Justice Elena Kagan agreed.

The court first considered recent decisions that had categorically distinguished juveniles from adults in the sentencing context. In its 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, the court held that offenders who are less than 18 years old may not be sentenced to death under any circumstances. Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, the court held that juveniles charged with nonhomicide crimes, such as robbery, cannot be given LWOP sentences.

Relying on scientific evidence, Roper and Graham established that juveniles are less blameworthy than adults for three reasons. First, juveniles’ lack of maturity and still-developing sense of responsibility makes them more impulsive, reckless, and irrational than adults. Second, juveniles are more vulnerable to negative pressure from peers and family members. Finally, the court explained that a child’s character is not as irretrievably fixed as an adult’s is perceived to be.

As Roper, Graham, and now Miller have emphasized, these inherent differences between children and adults fundamentally alter the sentencing calculus. The penological purposes that justify imposition of the harshest sentences on adult offenders do not carry the same weight when applied to juvenile offenders. Their immaturity makes juveniles less blameworthy than adult offenders who commit the same crimes, so retributive justifications are less powerful in this context. Their recklessness and impulsiveness means children are less likely than adults to consider the consequences of their actions, so children are unlikely to be deterred by extreme criminal sanctions. Their capacity for change, the court explained, also makes lifelong incapacitation unnecessary in the vast majority of juvenile cases and makes juvenile offenders better candidates for sentences that allow for the prospect of rehabilitation.

The court also relied on a line of cases, beginning with its 1976 decision in Woodson v. North Carolina, that have prohibited mandatory death sentences and required individualized sentencing procedures. Those cases, which until Miller were limited to the death penalty context, have required sentences to consider the defendant as an individual by considering both aggravating and mitigating factors before imposing a sentence. Miller is the first noncapital case to apply this proportionality rationale.

The Future

For defendants Miller and Jackson, their cases were returned to the trial court for new sentencing hearings, where their age and individual characteristics were to be evaluated before sentencing. The Miller decision, however, has broader implications for the more than 2,000 offenders across the country who are currently serving mandatory LWOP sentences that were imposed for crimes committed when these offenders were juveniles. The Supreme Court did not address whether its holding applies retroactively. State legislatures and courts have reached different conclusions about this question and the issue seems likely to return to the court in the near future.


  1. Scott, Elizabeth. “Miller v. Alabama and (Past and) Future of Juvenile Crime Regulation.” Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality, v.31/2 (2013).
  2. Siegel, David. “The Supreme Court and the Sentencing of Juveniles in the United States.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America, v. 20/3 (2011).
  3. Swartz, Robert. “Age Appropriate Charging and Sentencing.” Criminal Justice, v.27 (2012).

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