Kids Shouldn’t Die in Prison by Kimberlee Johnson
A look at the recent Miller v. Alabama Supreme Court decision—a victory for juvenile justice advocates—and the long
hard road ahead. Dr. Kimberlee Johnson, Chair of the Urban Studies Department, wrote the following article for Prisim Magazine’s September/October 2012 issue.
On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenders who are under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes. This narrow 5-to-4 decision is a victory for both juvenile lifers and the advocates who have worked tirelessly for many years on their behalf. In the Miller v. Alabama ruling, the majority opinion as stated by Justice Elena Kagan was that juvenile life-without-parole (JlWOP) convictions violate the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Approximately 2,600 citizens are currently serving JlWOP sentences. More than 2,000 of these were sentenced through the mandatory sentencing practice that the new ruling has barred; it is these prisoners who now have hope of eventual release.
Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson represented the defendants in the case. The executive director of the nonprofit law firm Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson called it “an important win for children… The court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system…[this] decision requires the lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges will have to consider children’s individual character and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime.”
But the fight for juvenile justice is far from over. Because resentencing must be initiated by the prisoners themselves, the majority of whom lack the funds to hire an attorney, Stevenson worries that many will remain in prison. The Supreme Court has stated that prisoners seeking new hearings have no constitutional right to counsel. And youths will continue to be tried as—and incarcerated with—adults, as this ruling touches exclusively on mandatory life-without-parole sentences.