Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Precedent as a Policy Map: What Miller V. Alabama Tells Us about Emerging Adults and the Direction of Contemporary Youth Services

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Precedent as a Policy Map: What Miller V. Alabama Tells Us about Emerging Adults and the Direction of Contemporary Youth Services

Article excerpt


Important court decisions alter legal policies and reflect the political context in which those decisions were made. Legal scholarship typically focuses on the interpretation of precedent--the cases from which a new decision draws its support or departs--and how a decision might change the trajectory of developing legal doctrine. This Article takes a somewhat different approach, examining what Miller v. Alabama (1) reveals about the state of juvenile offender policy in the United States and how the decision may influence the path taken by advocates, policymakers, and practitioners. The Article also explores what Miller will mean for issues beyond the sentencing of juveniles for serious violent crimes.

To illuminate the role that Miller plays with regard to the wider realm of youth policy, I will employ the analytic approach of Professor John Kingdon, whose influential book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Agendas) provides a framework for understanding how ideas move from mere proposals to effectuated policy. (2) His approach emerges from the pluralist tradition, which emphasizes government processes and the role of political influence in affecting policy choices. (3) In posing Kingdon's central question "How does an idea's time come?" (4)--to the Miller decision, this Article employs Kingdon's theoretical framework in two ways. First, Kingdon's framework is used to identify the factors, both political and scientific, that helped set the stage for the decision. Second, the Article explores how the identification and articulation of those factors will influence how we understand and deal with young offenders and disadvantaged emerging adults in the coming years.


In articulating his framework, Kingdon draws on a colorful metaphor first developed by Professors Michael Cohen, James March, and Johan Olsen in their article "A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice." (5) Kingdon's version of the "garbage can model" identifies three related "streams" that influence the topics that gain the attention of the public and their political representatives. (6) The "problem stream" describes how problems arise and are articulated by actors who have a stake in addressing the problem. (7) The "political stream" deals with changing governmental and electoral circumstances. (8) The political environment is influenced by shifting power among parties and factions, as well as external events--such as economic conditions or particularly heinous crimes--that may make legislative bodies amenable to policies that would be otherwise disregarded. (9) Finally, the "policy stream" involves the development of policy proposals themselves, how they are developed, and by whom. (10)

Central to Kingdon's approach is the idea that these streams are distinct; they occupy space in the "garbage can" and join together to determine the agendas of formal governmental actors. (11) The nature and path of these streams are only loosely coupled with each other. (12) Consequently, policies developed to address one problem may at times be paired with a different problem. (13) Alignment of the three streams provides an opening, or a "policy window," that allows reforms to be adopted. (14) Kingdon provides an example using a case study of the rise of health maintenance organizations in the 1970s, a reform that sought to address the rising costs of medical care. (15) He details how prepaid medical care, which "had been established and well-known for years," was repackaged in order to inject market dynamics into the provision of medical care, presumably lowering costs. (16) In this case, the problem of spiraling costs joined with a novel approach that was congruent with the economic principles that held sway in the Nixon administration. (17) In Agendas, Kingdon provided two additional case studies: the failure to establish national health insurance during the Carter administration, and the successful deregulation of the aviation, trucking, and railroad industries during the 1980s. …

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