By Matthew Simpson Policy Strategist Today the Supreme Court issued an important decision on how youth can be sentenced.  Specifically, the court held that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual punishment, as barred by the 8th Amendment. In previous cases, the Supreme Court had barred capital punishment for juveniles and prohibited life without parole for non-homicide crimes.  Specifically, Roper v. Simmons held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children, and Graham v. Florida concluded that the Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense. Today’s opinion, written by Justice Kagan, indicates two lines of legal reasoning that point to the unconstitutionality of life without parole for youth.

  • First, youth are viewed to be less culpable generally because of a "lack of maturity" and an "underdeveloped sense of responsibility."
  • Second, juvenile life without the chance of parole has been compared to the death penalty in previous opinions.  Because the Supreme Court previously determined the death penalty could not be applied to youth without violating the Constitution, any similar penalty would likewise be unconstitutional.
In Texas, juvenile life without the chance of parole was ended by a law passed in 2009. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) affirmed the practice, despite existing state law to the contrary, for youth sentenced to life without parole from 2005-2009.  We hope that today’s decision will influence CCA’s  future decisions on juvenile life without parole. Overall, the Supreme Court has affirmed that youthful offenders are fundamentally different from adult offenders and criminal penalties for youthful offenders must take into account these differences.  This line of reasoning could potentially mean further reforms in the future.  For example, the court could consider the sentencing of the mentally ill with similar emphasis on the culpability of individuals with mental health issues.  Or, the Supreme Court could consider the use of solitary confinement on juveniles who have been shown to be more negatively impacted than adults by isolation. The opinion today is a step toward fair sentencing.  Approaching justice with an individualized and outcome oriented approach allows policymakers to continue to develop criminal justice policy that makes us safer and encourages positive long term outcomes.  In Texas, ending juvenile life without parole was smart on crime and today the Supreme Court indicated we also have a constitutional duty to cease this sentencing practice.