Special Report: US states are sidestepping Supreme Court rulings prohibiting lifelong terms for juvenile offenders

The United States Supreme Court acted in 2010 and 2012 to restrict the use of mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders. Beginning with Graham v Florida (2010), the court held that “sentencing an individual to life imprisonment without parole for a non-homicide crime [committed before the defendant reaches the age of 18] violates the Eighth Amendment.”

Later in Miller v Alabama (2012), the Supreme Court went further by deciding that the Eighth Amendment prohibited sentencing schemes which forced juvenile homicide offenders to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. Instead of life without parole sentences, juvenile offenders in some states are now being given sentences in excess of 50 years, breaking the spirit of the Supreme Court decisions.

An objective look at juvenile sentences following Graham and Miller reveals an unwillingness on behalf of certain states to interpret the Supreme Court decisions in a flexible manner. The rulings clearly aimed to prevent a juvenile offender from potentially spending the rest of his/her natural life incarcerated. Despite these landmark rulings, minimum sentences of half a century or more have made release an almost impossible prospect for thousands of youths caught up in the US criminal justice system.

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