This was a landmark ruling meant to overhaul parts of an unjust justice system in which children and youth can be imprisoned for life. This sort of allowance in American law fails to address root causes of youth crimes, and also strains the American legal system and robs young offenders of the chance for rehabilitation.
It's because of the nation's overall failure to respond to two previous rulings by the Supreme Court that the Miller ruling is so vital. The language used by the justices in their verdicts following the Miller case is meant to wrap up any “loose ends” that allowed states to keep the life penalty in place following these original rulings:
- In Roper v. Simmons, an early 2000s case, the Supreme Court maintained that it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18
- In Graham v. Florida, a 2010 case, the Supreme Court found that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses
Considering that since the early 2000s states have continued to find ways to keep the mandatory life sentence for juveniles in place, the importance of the Miller case ruling cannot be stressed enough; it will force states to make “individualized sentencing decisions,” in Justice Elena Kagan’s words, rather than imposing mandatory life sentences without parole.
According to a recently published New York Times editorial, this means that as of June 2012, a state’s criminal justice system “must take into account a youth’s age, maturity, family circumstances and history, potential for rehabilitation and other factors. And states must engage in meaningful review of juveniles in prison so they have the opportunity to re-enter their communities if they are rehabilitated.”
Combined with the Supreme Court’s two previous rulings, the Miller case is an important step in the right direction as the American nation and its 50 states consider the best way to handle juvenile offenders. Further evidence that these rulings point in the right direction includes:
- The fact that, as reported in the New York Times editorial, in November 2012, there were an estimated 2,100 people serving mandatory life sentences received when they were juveniles, in 29 states that imposed the life sentence penalty.
- The fact that a report published in January 2012 from Human Rights Watch gave evidence that sentencing a child to life in prison without the possibility of parole is cruel and even in direct violation of international law.
However, while this is good news, these Supreme Court rulings do not mean the battle to end the life sentence penalty is over. The New York Times editorial emphasizes that while most states plan to address the case and make changes in 2013, those that have already “complied” with the case still use a “tough-on-crime” mindset – the same mindset that created the legal framework that led to the life penalty in the first place.
According to the editorial:
"In Iowa…the governor commuted the life sentences of 38 people convicted of committing murder when they were juveniles, but offered instead only the possibility of parole after 60 years in prison. In Pennsylvania, the legislature ended mandatory life without parole, but gave judges a choice between imposing life without parole or minimum sentences of 35 years for 15- to 17-year-olds convicted of murder. In North Carolina, the legislature replaced mandatory life with a minimum of 25 years."
It remains to be seen if the states of America can rise to the Supreme Court’s demands and new expectations for the criminal justice system.