In June, the Supreme Court will decide Miller v. Alabama, a case deciding whether or not sentencing a 14-year old murderer to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. There are currently 79 prisoners serving life without parole for murders they committed when they were 14 or younger. In this specific case, Evan Miller bludgeoned his neighbor with a baseball bat after trying to steal his wallet, set his house ablaze, and then left him to die. The Court now has to decide the constitutionality of the punishment doled out by the state of Alabama.

Bryan Stevenson, Miller’s counsel and a member of Lawyers for the Equal Rights Initiative, is arguing that the sentence is cruel and unusual punishment on the grounds that Miller’s brain was not fully developed, and that adolescents are better candidates for rehabilitation. The daughter of the victim in this case feels differently; she believes that Miller “deserves to be locked away until his last day.” Even Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman, the attorney arguing the case for the state, stated that life imprisonment was necessary to provide justice. Punishment and justice are not as important as deterrence, though, which will be the basis for my argument.

In 18 USC § 3553(a)(2)(C), courts are instructed to consider the need “to protect the public from further crimes” when sentencing dangerous individuals, which the lower court did in this case. Furthermore, the court has shifted away from rehabilitation, which is why, as Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out during oral arguments, “they no longer call prisons reformatories or whatever.” Miller’s limited culpability does not matter in deciding the sentencing in this case, and this can be explained through a cost-benefit analysis of rehabilitative measures in homicide cases.

Limited Culpability Is Irrelevant

Graham v. Florida (2010) declared the giving of life sentences unconstitutional as it pertains to juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. Graham went as far as to say that adolescent offenders have limited responsibility since they are not generally as mature physically, emotionally, or mentally as adults. Stevenson has used this as part of his argument, trying to apply the ruling to homicide offenses by arguing, “While the issue in Graham involved juveniles that were convicted of non-homicide offenses, the deficits in maturity and judgment are not crime-specific.” Because teenagers are “given to impulsive, heedless, sensation-seeking behavior,” Stevenson believes that removing murderous teenagers from society is a “disproportionate punishment.”

This stance can be proved false through simple comparisons. For example, rabid dogs have no control over themselves, resulting in practically no culpability, but we still put them down. Why? Because they are dangerous. They are a threat to the public, so we kill them. The same should apply to adolescent murderers. Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out the second problem when he asked Stevenson, “What’s the difference between 14 and 15?” Mr. Stevenson said that 18 is the age when full responsibility is assumed by an individual, and that “a person of 17 years and 11 months, who commit[ed] the worst possible string of offenses… [could not] be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.” This is too arbitrary to be used in cases where innocent lives are on the line.

The majority of states are okay with the original sentence in the Miller case, indicating that “the American people have decided that’s the rule.” According to Mr. Neiman, a substantial number of states would allow life imprisonment to be imposed on a murderer as young as thirteen, so a violent 14 or 15 year old is clearly seen as a threat by the public.

Rehabilitation and Recidivism

Stevenson argues that “it’s premature, excessive and unfair to say we know juvenile[s] will never be rehabilitated,” which is why life without parole is unconstitutional, in his opinion. He points to a few select cases as evidence that rehabilitation is the best policy to pursue. The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators’ brief in this case highlights some inspiring vignettes, like that of Scott Filippi, who became a member of the Presidential Honor Guard after shooting his mother, but no compelling studies were presented. In fact, no statistics were quoted in the oral arguments concerning recidivism rates for youths convicted of murder compared to adults convicted of murder.

The primary reason for imprisoning individuals is the “protection of society against wrongdoers,” so the risk of giving a convicted murderer parole must be analyzed carefully before rehabilitation can start to become an option. If we look at recidivism studies in the U.S., which actually have real numbers attached, then the risk of pursuing rehabilitation clearly outweighs the potential benefits. With a sample size of 272,111 prisoners were released from 15 states in 1994. Recidivism statistics indicated that 25.4% were resentenced to prison for a new offense by 1997. In just 3 years, the repeat offenders had racked up 744,000 new charges, which averages out to about 11 new offenses per released prisoner. However, only 1.2% of prisoners convicted of homicide were rearrested for murder. However, this low number is deceiving; murderers often commit other crimes, both violent and property, so their release will still lead to more crime in most cases. Miller’s case is a good example of this, because his original crime was conspiring to steal his neighbor’s wallet. Also, if the courts were to release all 79 of the 14 year old murderers serving life in prison at the moment, it would have just sentenced one innocent person to death if the recidivism rates hold true. In this case, would one death for every 79 second chances really be worth it? I think not.  Mr. Neiman put it quite nicely when he told the Court, “The fact that the person committed a murder and might commit a murder again is reason enough for legislatures to be hesitant to allow for parole.”

In Norway, Anders Breivik confessed to killing 77 people and said that he would gladly do it again. The maximum sentence he faces in Norway is 21 years. This means he will get the chance to make good on his promise. This seems insane to most people, who see the Norwegian justice system as irresponsible, as it does not protect the public. Now, what if Breivik were 14 years old and American? Wouldn’t it be just as irresponsible of the Supreme Court of the United States to prevent a lower court from imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without parole to protect the public from another rampage, which he has already promised?

The government recently expressed their support of public safety in U.S. v. Ressam, when it urged the Court to “send the defendant away for a long enough period of time so there is no chance he will ever target innocent victims again.” Hopefully the Court recognizes this when it makes its decision, because adolescent criminals may deserve a second chance after stealing a motorcycle, but not after murdering their neighbor in a botched robbery.

Adam Ondo | University of Rochester | @JoplinMaverick