Whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a fourteen-year-old juvenile convicted of homicide even though the juvenile was not the triggerman?
At age fourteen, Petitioner Kuntrell Jackson was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for felony-murder when his cousin killed a shop attendant during a robbery. Arkansas law made a life-without-parole sentence mandatory, so neither Jackson’s age nor the fact that he was not the triggerman entered into the sentencing consideration. After the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed Jackson’s conviction, a state court denied Jackson’s petition for habeas corpus in which he argued that a life-without-parole sentence on a fourteen-year-old constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Respondent, Arkansas Department of Corrections Director Ray Hobbs, asserts that such a sentence is constitutionally permissible and in line with national standards. The Supreme Court’s decision will help delineate the bounds of Eighth Amendment protection with respect to life-without-parole sentences for young juveniles convicted of homicide, particularly when they were not the triggermen.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1. Does imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a fourteen-year-old child convicted of homicide violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments' prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, when the extreme rarity of such sentences in practice reflects a national consensus regarding the reduced criminal culpability of young children?
2. Does such a sentence violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when it is imposed upon a fourteen-year-old who did not personally kill the homicide victim, did not personally engage in any act of physical violence toward the victim, and was not shown even to have anticipated, let alone intended, that anyone be killed?
3. Does such a sentence violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when it is imposed upon a fourteen-year-old as a result of a mandatory sentencing scheme that categorically precludes consideration of the offender's young age or any other mitigating circumstances?
On the night of November 18, 1999, Petitioner Kuntrell Jackson was walking with two older boys, Travis Booker (Jackson's cousin) and Derrick Shields through a housing project when they started to discuss robbing a video store. On the way to the store, Jackson learned that Shields was carrying a sawed-off .410 shotgun in his jacket. Upon arriving at the store, Shields entered the premises, pointed the shotgun at a shop clerk, and demanded money. Initially, Jackson chose to stay outside, but shortly after, he went inside the store as well. After the clerk repeatedly refused to give any money to Shields and mentioned calling the police, Shields shot her in the face. Jackson was inside the store during the killing. The three boys took nothing and went to Jackson’s house.
On July 19, 2003, Jackson was convicted of capital felony-murder and aggravated robbery, and the judge, legally barred from considering Jackson's age and other mitigating circumstances, sentenced Jackson to life in prison without the possibility of parole on the capital murder conviction. On appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the conviction.
On January 8, 2008, Jackson filed a petition for habeas corpus to the Jefferson County Circuit Court following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, which ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of death penalty on juvenile offenders. The state court rejected Jackson’s petition and granted the state’s motion to dismiss. Jackson then appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court and argued that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. While his appeal was pending, the Supreme Court decided Graham v. Florida, which held that Eighth Amendment also prohibits life-without-parole sentence imposed on juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. The Arkansas Supreme Court still rejected Jackson’s petition because, unlike Roper, Jackson was not sentenced to death and, unlike Graham, Jackson committed a homicide offense even though Jackson was not the triggerman and lacked intent to kill.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether a fourteen-year-old juvenile convicted of homicide may be sentenced to life without parole given the Court's recent decisions in Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida. This case is being argued in tandem with Miller v. Alabama. In Roper, the Supreme Court held that under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, states cannot impose the death penalty on juveniles. The Court in Graham extended the reasoning of Roper to hold that states cannot impose life-without-parole sentences on non-homicide juvenile offenders. Petitioner Kuntrell Jackson argues that the lessened culpability of adolescents as recognized in Roper and Graham, and the transitory nature of juveniles' characters, compel the conclusion that life-without-parole sentences are unjustified for juveniles convicted of homicide. Respondent Ray Hobbs, Director of Arkansas Department of Correction, argues that while Roper and Graham recognize the vulnerabilities of youth generally, those cases do not override the national consensus that life-without-parole sentences are a legitimate punishment for the highly culpable juvenile homicide offender.
Do Roper and Graham Extend to Juveniles Convicted of Homicide?
Jackson argues that the holdings of Roper and Graham logically prohibit life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide because the key considerations in those cases—the lessened culpability of juveniles and the unforgiving harshness of life-without-parole sentences—apply equally in this case. Citing Roper and Graham, Jackson maintains that the Court has recognized that juveniles are different from adults in various ways that bear on their culpability: juveniles are immature and more prone to risky, thoughtless behavior; they have substantially less control over their environment and are more susceptible to peer pressure; and they are at a developmental stage in which their characters and personalities are not yet fully formed. Jackson emphasizes that the recognition that juveniles are less culpable and capable of growing and changing into responsible members of society conflicts with the imposition of life-without-parole sentences because a life sentence should only be reserved for offenders who have been deemed incorrigible.
In response, Hobbs argues that Graham must be distinguished because here Jackson is convicted of murder, which is significantly more heinous than any other crime. Hobbs contends that a juvenile convicted of murder is much more culpable than one who is convicted of a non-homicide offense, and thus a sentence of life without parole is justified despite Graham's holding. Hobbs contends that, unlike the consensus against life sentences for non-homicide juvenile offenders in Graham, a large majority of states allow the imposition of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. Hobbs asserts that this widespread practice indicates society's views on the culpability of juvenile murderers and the justifiability of such a punishment.
Is There State and Federal Consensus on Imposing Life-without-Parole on Juveniles?
In assessing whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits a certain punishment, the Supreme Court looks to whether there is a national consensus against the challenged punishment, examining the states’ actual practice and enabling legislation.
Jackson asserts that there is a national consensus against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juvenile homicide offenders. Jackson supports this with the fact that, nationwide, there are currently only 79 individuals actually serving life-without-parole sentences for offense committed when they were 13 or 14. Jackson contends that most jurisdictions, all but 18 states, have never sentenced 13- or 14-year-old juveniles to life-without-parole sentences. Out of these 79 sentences, Jackson asserts that ninety-percent of them were imposed under a mandatory scheme, where the judge could not take into consideration the offender's age or culpability during sentencing, and thus the number of life-without-parole sentences does not truly reflect consensus on the propriety of this punishment.
Hobbs, however, claims that the low number of individuals serving life-without-parole sentences from age 13 or 14 reflects the rarity of 13- and 14-year-old homicide offenders, and not the states' unwillingness to employ such punishments. Hobbs argues that when, in 2010, there were only 73 arrests of juveniles age 14 or younger for murder or non-negligent homicide, 79 individuals serving life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murder does not indicate the rarity of life-without-parole sentencing.
Jackson acknowledges that many states expose 14-year-old juveniles to the possibility of life-without-parole sentences, but argues that these state schemes resulted from efforts to decrease general availability of parole for adults and a separate increase in prosecuting juveniles as adults in court. Jackson also argues that some states have expressly indicated disapproval with imposing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, age 14 or younger; those states have set the minimum age for imposing life-without-parole sentences above 14. Citing Graham, Jackson insists that the number of states that authorize life-without-parole sentences for juveniles fails to indicate a consensus supporting life-without-parole for juveniles.
Hobbs responds to Jackson by pointing out that when legislatures consciously allow juveniles to be prosecuted as adults and subject to adult sentencing, the legislature is clearly aware that juveniles potentially will be subject to life-without-parole sentences. Hobbs emphasizes that a large majority of states authorize life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders: 38 states and the federal government allow life-without-parole sentences for 14-year-old homicide offenders; 32 of those states and the federal government allow life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of felony-murder; and 26 states and the federal government mandate life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in certain circumstances. Hobbs further asserts that states' acceptance of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles is not outdated; many of these statutes on life-without-parole sentences were passed in the 1990s. Based on existing statutory schemes and actual sentencing practices, Hobbs argues that Jackson has failed to establish that there is a national consensus against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juvenile homicide offenders.
Is Mandatory Life-without-Parole Excessive As Applied to Juveniles Convicted of Felony-Murder?
Jackson argues that the constitutional essence of Graham, prohibiting life-without-parole sentences, would be defeated by a refusal to extend that prohibition to juveniles convicted under the felony-murder doctrine. Jackson claims that, on the facts, he may be less culpable than the non-homicide offender in Graham because he did not pull the trigger, only became aware that his accomplice had a gun right before they entered the store, and did not contemplate use of the gun as evidenced by all three companions fleeing the scene without taking any cash. Jackson contends that imposition of life-without-parole sentences on felony-murder juveniles would not further the purposes of that doctrine when juveniles, as a group, are inherently less likely to be aware of additional dangers during the commission of a felony. In addition, Jackson’s counsel argues that the mandatory nature of Arkansas’ life-without-parole sentences is especially problematic as the mandatory scheme does not truly reflect a reasoned judgment on the appropriateness of the punishment and precludes a consideration a juvenile’s youth as a mitigating circumstance, which should be relevant under the Eighth Amendment.
Hobbs asserts that even if the deterrence effect of the sentence is less on juveniles than on adults, the effect is still present and should not be trivialized when lives are at stake. Hobbs argues that Jackson was highly culpable—unlike a non-homicide offender, Jackson knew the danger involved in the robbery and immediately fled the scene after the victim was shot. On the mandatory nature of the sentencing procedures, Hobbs first asserts that Jackson was not sentenced to life under a mandatory sentencing scheme. Even assuming Jackson was sentenced to life without parole under a mandatory scheme, Hobbs argues that a mandatory sentence would be permissible because the Eighth Amendment does not require individualized sentencing outside the death penalty context. Hobbs also maintains that state and federal courts already do take into account juveniles’ youth during various pre-trial and post-conviction procedures. Finally, Hobbs maintains that Jackson’s youth has already been factored in under the Constitution because the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for juveniles; Hobbs concludes that Jackson’s juvenile status should not work again to reduce his sentence.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Eighth Amendment protects young juveniles from life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenses.
Effect on the Rate of Homicide and the Penological Interests
Jackson argues that life-without-parole sentences have little deterrence effect on young juveniles because, by nature, they are more impulsive and less future-oriented than adults. The American Psychological Association (“APA”) bolsters Jackson's claim with scientific research that shows that juveniles are less able than adults to envision and plan for the future and foresee consequences of their actions. Additionally, the APA asserts that given juveniles’ limited life experience, it is likely that even if they know the type of penalty for a crime, they still will not fully appreciate the magnitude of a life-without-parole sentence. The APA states that even if juveniles comprehend the potential negative consequence of their action, because of their limited ability to control their emotions, juveniles could still act impulsively, especially when they are influenced by environmental or peer pressure. Therefore, Jackson argues that it is futile to impose such a harsh sentence on a group that is unable to fully comprehend the severity of the penalty and unlikely to adjust their behaviors accordingly. Jackson contends that Graham's judgment is correct—many juveniles are not dangerous and incorrigible—and therefore a life-without-parole sentence unfairly denies them of any opportunity and incentive to reform.
Hobbs focuses on the proportionality of crime and punishment rather than dwelling on the severity of the punishment. Hobbs argues that the punishment is not excessive because homicide offenses are among the worst crimes, so even if the punishment only has minimum deterrence effect, it is still quite valuable to society. Though Hobbs concedes that juveniles may be less culpable than adults, he asserts that deterrence effect is not the only concern in tailoring a punishment to a crime. For example, Hobbs contends that retribution is also a legitimate reason to severely punish a murder because it is widely recognized that society is entitled to express their moral outrage. Hobbs also argues that there are benefits from incarceration for dangerous criminals—it limits an individual’s ability to cause additional harm. Although Hobbs concedes that juvenile offenders have limited capacity to understand the consequence of their actions, Hobbs argues that it does not take much maturity for a fourteen-year-old to understand that killing someone or allowing a person to be killed is wrong. Therefore, Hobbs maintains that many of the juveniles who commit homicide offenses are more dangerous than juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes; therefore, society’s interests justify a more severe punishment.
Effect on the Current States’ Sentencing Practices
Jackson intimates that a categorical ban on imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles will have minimum effects on states' current sentencing practices because, in actual practice, it is extremely rare to see life-without-parole sentences imposed on juveniles. Jackson states that there are only 79 juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences in the United States, and the data stretches back to 1971. More importantly, Jackson points out that 90% of the sentences are imposed under mandatory sentencing statutes similar to the one at issue here, implying that the number of juveniles serving such sentences would have been even lower if the courts were allowed to consider the juveniles' ages.
In contrast, Hobbs asserts that there is no national consensus against such sentencing practices, and that two-thirds of states authorize imposition of life-without-parole sentences on young juveniles for homicide, and thirty-two states and the federal government authorize such sentences for non-triggerman juveniles. The National District Attorneys Association (“NDAA”) criticizes Jackson's interpretation of the low number of juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences as evidence of states' reluctance to impose such sentences.The NDAA explains that the low number of such sentences is due to the small number of fourteen-years-old murderers. The NDAA argues that the categorical ban of life-without-parole sentences shows a lack of deference to state legislatures and would have significant effect on current states' juvenile justice codes.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will further define the Eighth Amendment’s limits on cruel and unusual punishment in the juvenile sentencing context. Petitioner Jackson maintains that the developmental immaturity of juveniles, their lessened culpability, and the national consensus against life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders indicate that the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a 14-year-old juvenile felony-murder convict. Respondent Hobbs maintains that there is national acceptance of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers, and despite the differences between juveniles and adults, a life sentence is justified given the severity of homicide and Jackson's high culpability. The Supreme Court's decision will have a significant impact on the futures of juveniles convicted of felony-murder and on states’ juvenile justice codes.
Georgetown Law Journal Ipsa Loquitur, Scott Hechinger: Another Bite at the Graham Cracker: The Supreme Court’s Surprise Revisiting of Juvenile Life Without Parole in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs
Huffington Post, David Fassler: Adolescent Brain Development and Life Without Parole (Feb. 24, 2012)
New York Times, Adam Liptak: Justices Will Hear 2 Cases of Life Sentences for Youths (Nov. 7, 2011)