In May The Nation introduced readers to Trina Garnett, a woman serving life without parole in Pennsylvania for a crime she committed in 1976. A severely neglected and abused child with serious mental problems, Trina was only 14 when she was arrested for setting a fire that killed two boys, on an impoverished block in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester. Represented by a pitifully inadequate attorney who was later disbarred, Trina was convicted and given two life without parole sentences. The judge, bound by the state’s mandatory sentencing statutes, called the case “one of the saddest I’ve ever seen involving a juvenile.”
On June 25, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court struck down such punishments, ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are cruel and unusual, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court held that “such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it.” Such characteristics include the recklessness, immaturity and underdeveloped sense of consequences that common sense suggests—and science confirms—define all teenagers. What’s more, Kagan noted, mandatory sentences leave no room to consider the basic distinguishing features of a given case. “Under these schemes,” she wrote, “every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other—the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one. And still worse, each juvenile…will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses.”
The decision leaned heavily on recent Court precedent. In 2005 Roper v. Simmons banned the death penalty for juveniles based on the vast neurological differences between teens and adults, which render the former less culpable and thus “less deserving of the most severe punishments.” The same logic led the Court in 2010 to forbid life without parole for teens who commit nonhomicide offenses. That ruling, in Graham v. Florida, drew parallels between the death penalty and life without parole, which were cited by Kagan in Miller. “In part because we viewed this ultimate penalty for juveniles as akin to the death penalty, we treated it similarly…We imposed a categorical ban on the sentence’s use, in a way unprecedented for a term of imprisonment.”
So why did the Court limit its ruling to mandatory sentences instead of banning juvenile life without parole altogether? One death penalty lawyer described this decision as “incrementalism at its very worst,” pointing out that under Miller, “it would still be OK for a jury to sentence…any 14-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as long as the jury has the option not to issue that sentence.”
But even as a limited (and split) decision, the ruling is an important rebuke to decades of zero-tolerance reforms that sought ever-harsher punishments for youth. “Adult time” for teens is largely the legacy of criminologists and politicians in the 1980s and ’90s, whose warnings that a new breed of “superpredators” would bring a wave of violent crime were not only false but rooted in racism. While Miller does not note the disproportionate impact this had on minority youth like Trina—race is not mentioned once—it reaffirms the need to treat kids as kids.