ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS OF ALABAMA 63 So.3d 676; ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ARKANSAS 2011 Ark. 49
In each of 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 No. 10−9647, petitioner 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 his co-conspirators shot and killed the store clerk. 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 filed a state habeas petition, arguing 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.
In No. 10−9646, petitioner Miller, along with a friend, beat Miller's 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.
Held: The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Pp. 6−27.
(a) The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment "guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions." Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, 560. That right "flows from the basic 'precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned' " to both the offender and the offense. Ibid.
Two strands of precedent reflecting the concern with proportionate punishment come together here. 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, e.g., Kennedy v. Louisiana,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kagan
The two 14-year-old offenders in these cases were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In neither case did the sentencing authority 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 its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate. Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile's "lessened culpability" and greater "capacity for change," Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 17, 23), and runs afoul of our cases' requirement of individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties. We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments."
In November 1999, petitioner Kuntrell Jackson, then 14 years old, and two other boys decided to rob a video store. En route to the store, Jackson learned that one of the boys, Derrick Shields, was carrying a sawed-off shotgun in his coat sleeve. Jackson decided to stay outside when the two other boys entered the store. Inside, Shields pointed the gun at the store clerk, Laurie Troup, and demanded that she "give up the money." Jackson v. State, 359 Ark. 87, 89, 194 S. W. 3d 757, 759 (2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). Troup refused. A few moments later, Jackson went into the store to find Shields continuing to demand money. At trial, the parties disputed whether Jackson warned Troup that "[w]e ain't playin'," or instead told his friends, "I thought you all was playin'." Id., at 91, 194 S. W. 3d, at 760 (internal quotation marks omitted). When Troup threatened to call the police, Shields shot and killed her. The three boys fled empty-handed. See id., at 89-92, 194 S. W. 3d, at 758-760.
Arkansas law gives prosecutors discretion to charge 14- year-olds as adults when they are alleged to have committed certain serious offenses. See Ark. Code Ann. §9-27- 318(c)(2) (1998). The prosecutor here exercised that authority by charging Jackson with capital felony murder and aggravated robbery. Jackson moved to transfer the case to juvenile court, but after considering the alleged facts of the crime, a psychiatrist's examination, and Jackson's juvenile arrest history (shoplifting and several incidents of car theft), the trial court denied the motion, and an appellate court affirmed. See Jackson v. State, No. 02-535, 2003 WL 193412, *1 (Ark. App., Jan. 29, 2003); §§9-27-318(d), (e). A jury later convicted Jackson of both crimes. Noting that "in view of [the] verdict, there's only one possible punishment," the judge sentenced Jackson to life without parole. App. in No. 10-9647, p. 55 (hereinafter Jackson App.); see Ark. Code Ann. §5-4-104(b) (1997) ("A defendant convicted of capital murder or treason shall be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole").*fn2 Jackson did not challenge the sentence on appeal, and the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the convictions. See 359 Ark. 87, 194 S. W. 3d 757.
Following Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005), in which this Court invalidated the death penalty for all juvenile offenders under the age of 18, Jackson filed a state petition for habeas corpus. He argued, based on Roper's reasoning, that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a 14-year-old also violates the Eighth Amendment. The circuit court rejected that argument and granted the State's motion to dismiss. See Jackson App. 72-76. While that ruling was on appeal, this Court held in Graham v. Florida that life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment when imposed on juvenile nonhomicide offenders. After the parties filed briefs addressing that decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Jackson's petition. See Jackson v. Norris, 2011 Ark. 49, ___ S. W. 3d ___. The majority found that Roper and Graham were "narrowly tailored" to their contexts: "death-penalty cases involving a juvenile and life- imprisonment-without-parole cases for non-homicide offenses involving a juvenile." Id., at 5, ___ S. W. 3d, at ___. Two justices dissented. They noted that Jackson was not the shooter and that "any evidence of intent to kill was severely lacking." Id., at 10, ___ S. W. 3d, at ___ (Danielson, J., dissenting). And they argued that Jackson's mandatory sentence ran afoul of Graham's admonition that "'[a]n offender's age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, and criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants' youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.'" Id., at 10-11, ___ S. W. 3d, at ___ (quoting Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 25)).*fn3
Like Jackson, petitioner Evan Miller was 14 years old at the time of his crime. Miller had by then been in and out of foster care because his mother suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction and his stepfather abused him. Miller, too, regularly used drugs and alcohol; and he had attempted suicide four times, the first when he was six years old. See E. J. M. v. State, 928 So. 2d 1077, 1081 (Ala. Crim. App. 2004) (Cobb, J., concurring in result); App. in No. 10-9646, pp. 26-28 (hereinafter Miller App.).
One night in 2003, Miller was at home with a friend, Colby Smith, when a neighbor, Cole Cannon, came to make a drug deal with Miller's mother. See 6 Record in No. 10-9646, p. 1004. The two boys followed Cannon back to his trailer, where all three smoked marijuana and played drinking games. When Cannon passed out, Miller stole his wallet, splitting about $300 with Smith. Miller then tried to put the wallet back in Cannon's pocket, but Cannon awoke and grabbed Miller by the throat. Smith hit Cannon with a nearby baseball bat, and once released, Miller grabbed the bat and repeatedly struck Cannon with it. Miller placed a sheet over Cannon's head, told him "'I am God, I've come to take your life,'" and delivered one more blow. Miller v. State, 63 So. 3d 676, 689 (Ala. Crim. App. 2010). The boys then retreated to Miller's trailer, but soon decided to return to Cannon's to cover up evidence of their crime. Once there, they lit two fires. Cannon eventually died from his injuries and smoke inhalation. See id., at 683-685, 689.
Alabama law required that Miller initially be charged as a juvenile, but allowed the District Attorney to seek removal of the case to adult court. See Ala. Code §12-15-34 (1977). The D. A. did so, and the juvenile court agreed to the transfer after a hearing. Citing the nature of the crime, Miller's "mental maturity," and his prior juvenile offenses (truancy and "criminal mischief"), the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. E. J. M. v. State, No. CR-03-0915, pp. 5-7 (Aug. 27, 2004) (unpublished memorandum).*fn4 The State accordingly charged Miller as an adult with murder in the course of arson. That crime (like capital murder in Arkansas) carries a mandatory minimum punishment of life without parole. See Ala. Code §§13A-5-40(9), 13A-6-2(c) (1982).
Relying in significant part on testimony from Smith, who had pleaded to a lesser offense, a jury found Miller guilty. He was therefore sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, ruling that life without parole was "not overly harsh when compared to the crime" and that the mandatory nature of the sentencing scheme was permissible under the Eighth Amendment. 63 So. 3d, at 690; see id., at 686-691. The Alabama Supreme Court denied review.
We granted certiorari in both cases, see 565 U. S. ___ (2011) (No. 10-9646); 565 U. S. ___ (2011) (No. 10-9647), and now reverse.
The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment "guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions." Roper, 543 U. S., at 560. 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. Ibid. (quoting Weems v. United States, 217 U. S. 349, 367 (1910)). 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." Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 8). 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.'" Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S. 97, 102 (1976) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)).
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, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 9-10) (listing cases). So, for example, we have held that imposing the death penalty for non-homicide crimes against individuals, or imposing it on mentally retarded defendants, violates the Eighth Amendment. See Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U. S. 407 (2008); Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304 (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. See Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280 (1976) (plurality opinion); Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. 586 (1978). 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.*fn5
To start with the first set of cases: Roper and Graham establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained, "they are less deserving of the most severe punishments." Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17). Those cases relied on three significant gaps between juveniles and adults. First, children have a "'lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,'" leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U. S., at 569. Second, children "are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures," including from their family and peers; they have limited "contro[l] over their own environment" and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And third, a child's character is not as "well formed" as an adult's; his traits are "less fixed" and his actions less likely to be "evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity]." Id., at 570.
Our decisions rested not only on common sense--on what "any parent knows"--but on science and social science as well. Id., at 569. In Roper, we cited studies showing that "'[o]nly a relatively small proportion of adolescents'" who engage in illegal activity "'develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.'" Id., at 570 (quoting Steinberg & Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1014 (2003)). And in Graham, we noted that "developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds"--for example, in "parts of the brain involved in behavior control." 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17).*fn6 We reasoned that those findings--of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences--both lessened a child's "moral culpability" and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his "'deficiencies will be reformed.'" Id., at ___ (slip op., at 18) (quoting Roper, 543 U. S., at 570).
Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes. Because "'[t]he heart of the retribution rationale'" relates to an offender's blameworthiness, "'the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult.'" Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 20-21) (quoting Tison v. Arizona, 481 U. S. 137, 149 (1987); Roper, 543 U. S., at 571). Nor can deterrence do the work in this context, because "'the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults'"--their immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity--make them less likely to consider potential punishment. Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 21) (quoting Roper, 543 U. S., at 571). Similarly, incapacitation could not support the life-without-parole sentence in Graham: Deciding that a "juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society" would require "mak[ing] a judgment that [he] is incorrigible"--but "'incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.'" 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 22) (quoting Workman v. Commonwealth, 429 S. W. 2d 374, 378 (Ky. App. 1968)). And for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence. Life without parole "forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal." Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 23). It reflects "an irrevocable judgment about [an offender's] value and place in society," at odds with a child's capacity for change. Ibid.
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 non-homicide crimes, and the Court took care to distinguish those offenses from murder, based on both moral culpability and consequential harm. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 18). 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 non-homicide 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. Cf. id., at ___ (slip op., at 20-23) (generally doubting the penological justifications for imposing life without parole on juveniles). "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." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 25). THE CHIEF JUSTICE, concurring in the judgment, made a similar point. Although rejecting a categorical bar on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, he acknowledged "Roper's conclusion that juveniles are typically less culpable than adults," and accordingly wrote that "an offender's juvenile status can play a central role" in considering a sentence's proportionality. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 5-6); see id., at ___ (slip op., at 12) (Graham's "youth is one factor, among others, that should be considered in deciding whether his punishment was unconstitutionally excessive").*fn7
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. Life-without-parole terms, the Court wrote, "share some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences." 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 19). Imprisoning an offender until he dies alters the remainder of his life "by a forfeiture that is irrevocable." Ibid. (citing Solem v. Helm, 463 U. S. 277, 300-301 (1983)). And this lengthiest possible incarceration is an "especially harsh punishment for a juvenile," because he will almost inevitably serve "more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender." Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 19-20). The penalty when imposed on a teenager, as compared with an older person, is therefore "the same . . . in name only." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 20). All of that 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. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 9); id., at ___ (THOMAS, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 7) ("For the first time in its history, the Court declares an entire class of offenders immune from a non-capital sentence using the categorical approach it previously reserved for death penalty cases alone"). And the bar we adopted mirrored a proscription first established in the death penalty context--that the punishment cannot be imposed for any non-homicide crimes against individuals. See Kennedy, 554 U. S. 407; Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584 (1977).
That correspondence--Graham's "[t]reat[ment] [of] juvenile life sentences as analogous to capital punishment," 560 U. S., at ___ (ROBERTS, C. J., concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 5)--makes relevant here a second line of our precedents, demanding individualized sentencing when imposing the death penalty. In Woodson, 428 U. S. 280, 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." Id., at 304. 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. See, e.g., Sumner v. Shuman, 483 U. S. 66, 74- 76 (1987); Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 110-112 (1982); Lockett, 438 U. S., at 597-609 (plurality opinion).
Of special pertinence here, we insisted in these rulings that a sentencer have the ability to consider the "mitigating qualities of youth." Johnson v. Texas, 509 U. S. 350, 367 (1993). Everything we said in Roper and Graham about that stage of life also appears in these decisions. As we observed, "youth is more than a chronological fact." Eddings, 455 U. S., at 115. It is a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, "impetuousness[,] and recklessness." Johnson, 509 U. S., at 368. It is a moment and "condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage." Eddings, 455 U. S., at 115. And its "signature qualities" are all "transient." Johnson, 509 U. S., at 368. Eddings is especially on point. There, a 16-year-old shot a police officer point-blank and killed him. We invalidated his death sentence because the judge did not consider evidence of his neglectful and violent family background (including his mother's drug abuse and his father's physical abuse) and his emotional disturbance.
We found that evidence "particularly relevant"--more so than it would have been in the case of an adult offender. 455 U. S., at 115. We held: "[J]ust as the chronological age of a minor is itself a relevant mitigating factor of great weight, so must the background and mental and emotional development of a youthful defendant be duly considered" in assessing his culpability. Id., at 116.
In light of Graham's reasoning, these decisions too show the flaws of imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juvenile homicide offenders. Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender's age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it. Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other--the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one. And still worse, each juvenile (including these two 14- year-olds) will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses--but really, as Graham noted, a greater sentence than those adults will serve.*fn8 In meting out the death penalty, the elision of all these differences would be strictly forbidden. And once again, Graham indicates that a similar rule should apply when a juvenile confronts a sentence of life (and death) in prison.
So Graham and Roper and our individualized sentencing cases alike teach that in imposing a State's harshest penalties, a sentencer misses too much if he treats every child as an adult. To recap: 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. See, e.g., Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 27) ("[T]he features that distinguish juveniles from adults also put them at a ...