Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs

Brief Filed: 1/12
Court: U.S. Supreme Court
Year of Decision: 2012

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF,155KB)


Addresses life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles in homicide cases

Index Topic

Juvenile Sentencing


The Supreme Court granted review of these two cases presenting the question of the constitutionality of a sentence of life without parole for 14-year-olds who committed homicide offenses. These cases are follow-on cases to two previous Supreme Court cases in which APA filed an amicus brief: Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), which held that imposition of the death penalty on defendants who were under age 18 when they committed their crimes violated the Eighth Amendment, and Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), which held that imposition of life without parole on defendants who were under age 18 at the time of their crimes and who were convicted of non-homicide offenses violated the Eighth Amendment. In both cases, APA took the position that the sentences violated the Eighth Amendment, and laid out the way in which recent findings in neuroscience and developmental psychology supported the conclusion that juveniles are less culpable than adults, and death or life without parole are inappropriate sentences for juveniles, in light of their immaturity, vulnerability and changeability.

Miller and Jackson present the next logical question: whether juveniles — specifically, 14-year-olds — who have been convicted of homicide offenses may constitutionally be sentenced to life without parole. They also present two narrower questions: in both cases, whether mandatory life without parole is a permissible sentence in those circumstances; and in Jackson, whether life without parole is a permissible sentence when the 14-year-old was convicted only of felony murder (i.e., he did not actually kill the victim).

The research described and the position APA advanced in its Graham brief are equally applicable here. Juveniles’ lack of maturity, vulnerability and changeability are the same regardless of the offense committed. Moreover, in Miller and Jackson, unlike Simmons and Graham (which both involved 17-year-olds), the defendants were only 14 years old at the time of their offenses, and their differences from adults are thus much more stark.

APA’s Position

The brief submitted in Miller and Jackson draws heavily on the brief in Graham while updating the relevant research. The general structure of the brief is around three areas of attributes that demonstrate juveniles’ diminished culpability: 1) immaturity (that juveniles have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility which can result in ill-considered actions and decisions), 2) vulnerability (that juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure), and 3) changeability (that the character of juveniles is not as well-formed as that of an adult, thereby giving juveniles greater potential for rehabilitation). Also presented is recent research regarding adolescent brain development. In summary, the brief presents research that is relevant to determining that given juveniles' diminished culpability and enhanced prospects for rehabilitation, a sentence of life in prison with no opportunity to demonstrate reform is a disproportionate punishment.


On June 25, 2012, in a 5-4 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. The Court ruled that juvenile offenders have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform,” and that judges and juries must have the opportunity to consider the “mitigating qualities of youth” in sentencing even when juveniles commit heinous crimes. Justice Kagan, in her opinion for the majority, cited APA’s brief in concluding that developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds, noting that the social science supporting this conclusion has become even stronger since the Court last visited the question of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases.