The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that any person sentenced to life-without-parole for crimes committed while they were a youth must be granted the right to a hearing to determine whether they are eligible for an amended sentence or parole.
This case builds on the SCOTUS holding in Miller v. Alabama, which held that “mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children pose too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.” In Miller, the court held that prior to sentencing a juvenile to life-without-parole, the court must take into account how children are “constitutionally different from adults for the purposes of sentencing.” This can include expert testimony on a youth’s “limited capacity for foresight,” underdeveloped impulse control (referred to as “self-discipline” in the present case of Montgomery v. Louisiana), and the potential for rehabilitation. In the present case of Montgomery, the court noted that these hearings are required to “…separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not,” and underscores the idea that “…life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.”
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) is a neutral judicial organization and takes no position on the merits of pending cases before any court. However, the opinion of Montgomery v. Louisiana and Miller v. Alabama intersect closely with the NCJFCJ’s work on adolescent brain development and trauma. Teenagers often lack the cognitive capacity to control their impulses as readily as adults. In addition, children who have been abused or neglected may have significant cognitive deficits, including impeded development of their cognitive control system. These systems affect the “stop-and-think” response, which in many adolescents is underdeveloped. In youth with trauma, this executive function can also be compromised through a hypersensitive fight-flight-freeze reaction.
The NCJFCJ encourages judges, lawyers and court officials to learn more about adolescent brain development, trauma and juvenile justice through our website here, or through our partner organization, the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network.