CRS Report – Juvenile Justice: Life Without Parole

BY: Alison M. Smith, Legislative Attorney, Congressional Research Service (CRS)
September 14, 2009.


Some question whether the United States justice system appropriately handles juvenile offenders.

Since the late 1960s, the juvenile justice system has undergone significant modifications resulting from U.S. Supreme Court decisions, changes in federal and state law, and the growing perception that juveniles are increasingly involved in more serious and violent crimes. Consequently, at both the federal and state levels, the treatment of juvenile offenders has shifted from a mostly rehabilitative system to a more punitive one, with serious ramifications for juvenile offenders.

One of these ramifications, sentencing juvenile offenders to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, continues to be a source of debate at both the state and national levels. For example, H.R. 2289, the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009, would, if enacted, establish requirements for states to meet in order to retain eligibility for grant funding. Specifically, the bill requires states to provide all juvenile offenders a chance at parole at specified intervals during incarceration. This bill strives to strike a balance between holding juveniles accountable for their actions, while at the same time providing them with an incentive to work toward rehabilitation while in prison.

In addition to the penological, moral, and legislative issues presented by a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders, courts are beginning to address the constitutionality under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment of sentencing juveniles to long prison terms. The Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has divided Justices for years, resulting in a series of 5-4 decisions.

The Supreme Court has held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime. In capital cases, the Court has found the death penalty disproportionate for crimes such as rape and felony murder. In later death penalty cases, the Court shifted from a punishment-crime methodology to a punishment-offender culpability methodology.

In finding the death penalty unconstitutional for mentally retarded and juvenile offenders, the Court considered the physical characteristics of the offender and focused the proportionality inquiry on the offender’s reduced culpability. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Supreme Court recognized an established and evolving national consensus that quantifiable behavioral and cognitive limitations diminish the moral culpability of juvenile offenders and,
consequently, impact their appropriate punishment. As such, the Court held that the death penalty is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.

One question the Court left open is whether a minor’s reduced culpability can be a factor to mitigate additional sentencing options, or whether it applies only in capital cases. Is sentencing a juvenile offender to life without the possibility of parole sufficiently analogous to the death penalty to warrant an extension of Roper?

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in two cases that may answer some of these questions. In Graham v. Florida, the defendant was earlier convicted of committing an armed robbery and assault. While on probation for these offenses, he committed a home invasion and robbery while in possession of a firearm. Upon revocation of his probation, the defendant was sentenced to LWOP. In Sullivan v. Florida, the defendant was 13 when he received the same sentence for a sexual assault committed during a burglary. The Court’s resolutions in these cases are likely to have a significant impact on the treatment of juvenile offenders at both the federal and state levels.

This report examines Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and the legal issues involved with juvenile LWOP sentences, and will be updated as events warrant.

Contact Information