October 17, 2019

Mandatory Life for Juvenile Offenders

Does Youth Matter?

The United States Supreme Court has held that mandatory sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. However, are these sentences prohibited because they are too severe for juveniles or because they are mandatory and don’t consider the youth or mental capacity of the offender? The Supreme Court is now considering this question in Mathena v. Malvo.

The Supreme Court has already held that certain sentences are too severe for juveniles. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Court prohibited capital punishment for persons who were under 18 at the time of their offense. In Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), it held that sentences of LWOP for juveniles who were not convicted of a homicide are unconstitutional. 

The Supreme Court has also held in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that mandatory LWOP sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles under the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), the Court applied Miller retroactively.

Now enter Lee Boyd Malvo – the 17-year old convicted of terrorizing the Washington DC area with adult John Muhammed where they randomly shot and killed 10 people and hurt several others. Muhammed received a death sentence and was executed ten years ago. Malvo received life sentences without the possibility of parole and appealed his sentences as unconstitutional.

On October 16th, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Mathena v. Malvo. A key issue is whether courts must consider the youth or diminished capacity of a juvenile offender when determining a LWOP sentence. It is unclear from the Court’s decisions in the Miller and Montgomery cases whether a LWOP sentence for a juvenile is unconstitutional only when it is mandatory or whether a court or jury must consider the youth of the offender as a factor in determining any LWOP sentence.

The American Bar Association filed an amicus curiae brief in Mathena v. Malvo supporting what the Supreme Court recognized in the Miller case -- that juveniles’ diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform make them different from adults for sentencing purposes, and that juveniles whose crimes reflect transient immaturity, rather than irreparable corruption, should not be subject to life imprisonment without parole.     

All eyes are now on the Supreme Court, with the fate of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders on the line. Malvo is not the only inmate potentially affected by the outcome. As his lawyer told the Court, there are more than a dozen other inmates who were also juveniles at the time of their crimes serving LWOP sentences watching this case closely. 

In addition to the Supreme Court, Congress has also considered the severity of long sentences involving juvenile offenders in recent years, but without success. Two bills introduced this Congress may change that. The Next Step Act of 2019, S.697/H.R.1893, would allow a court to reduce a prison sentence imposed on a juvenile offender once he or she has served not less than 20 years and is no longer determined to be a danger to any person or the community. A related bill, the Second Look Act, S.2146/H.R.3795, would go further, expanding that review for all persons once they have served at least 10 years of a sentence greater than 10 years.

ABA policy opposes sentences of life without parole for juveniles, opposes transfer of juveniles into the adult system absent waiver by the juvenile court, and opposes all mandatory minimum sentences.