Academic journal article Washington Law Review

Miller's Promise: Re-Evaluating Extreme Criminal Sentences for Children

Academic journal article Washington Law Review

Miller's Promise: Re-Evaluating Extreme Criminal Sentences for Children

Article excerpt


Recent psychosocial studies and neurological research have proven that the structures and processes of the adolescent brain render young people more reckless and more susceptible to negative familial and societal pressures.1 In a series of recent cases, culminating in Miller v. Alabama,* 2 the United States Supreme Court relied on this science and recognized that, for young people, a confluence of immature judgment, vulnerability, social pressure, and decreased ability to appreciate long- term consequences can create a toxic environment with tragic results.3 The chances for unthinking violence are exponentially increased when homelessness, familial abuse or neglect, mental illness, and chemical dependency are added to the mix.4

However, because of their developing characters, children are also uniquely able to transform themselves; they can change from foolhardy, risk-seeking teenagers into mature, rehabilitated adults.5 It is these "characteristics of youth"6 and the developing science that explains them that animate the Supreme Court's recent juvenile sentencing decisions.7 As discussed in those cases, physiological differences between teenagers and adults carry constitutional significance and require that children be sentenced differently-a principle firmly rooted in recent science and longstanding legal distinctions between children and adults.8

In Part I, this Article analyzes Miller v. Alabama,9 Graham v. Florida,10 and Roper v. Simmons,n Part II explains the science underpinning those decisions. Part III shows how that science helps explain why the men currently serving life without parole in Washington for crimes committed as juveniles came to reside in prison. Part IV argues that the principles announced in Graham and Miller apply with equal force to long determinate sentences imposed upon children. Part V discusses how Miller and Graham track a growing societal disfavor for extreme punishments for youth. Part VI examines how the Washington legislature responded to this changing legal and social landscape during the 2014 legislative session when it fundamentally altered the sentencing structure applicable to children who commit serious crimes. Finally, Part VII discusses what else courts and the legislature should do to fully realize Mille fs promise.


In a trilogy of recent cases, the Supreme Court has recognized that juveniles differ from adults in their psychosocial and neurological makeups and therefore must be sentenced differently-even when those children have committed heinous crimes.12 In 2005 in Roper v. Simmons,13 the Court extended the categorical rule it set out in Thompson v. Oklahoma14 barring the death penalty for children under the age of sixteen, to any person who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime.15 While Roper announced a number of important principles, the true impact of those newly articulated constitutional rules awaited further development in Graham and Miller.16

The Court heard arguments in Graham v. Florida, a case that presented the question whether children can be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicides, in the fall of 2009.17 In an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court ruled that imposition of such sentences in cases in which no one was killed violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.18

The Graham Court expanded upon the discussion begun in Roper that the unique attributes of children require that they be sentenced differently than adults. As in Roper, the Graham Court accepted recent scientific breakthroughs that explain why young people are inclined to engage in risky, anti-social behaviors; how peer pressure and poor familial circumstances more dramatically affect them; and how-given expected neurological development-many of them will outgrow the irresponsible, unthinking acts which lead them to prison. …

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