Locked Away for Life: Juvenile Life Without Parole in the American Criminal Justice System


“They’re just looking at the crime. They don’t take into account how you grew up. They don’t take into account whether you had your parents in your life. You’re sentenced to life without parole. You’re a predator, and that’s it.” [1]

These are the words of Anthony Rolon, a thirty-nine-year-old man who is currently serving life without parole for fatally stabbing a man when he was just seventeen. Rolon is one of 2,100 individuals in the United States prison system today who is serving under juvenile life without parole, or JLWOP. [2] JLWOP sentences are de facto death sentences which leave juveniles, or individuals under the age of eighteen, behind bars for the remainder of their lives. Individuals who face these sentences have their lives ripped away, chances at rehabilitation restricted, and any and all hopes of release, even temporary, prohibited.

Since Rolon’s verdict in 1996, juvenile life without parole sentences have garnered more attention under federal statutes. In the Supreme Court ruling Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the majority opinion held that JLWOP sentences violate the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment. [3] In 2016, the Miller ruling was further extended in Montgomery v. Louisiana which granted JLWOP inmates eligibility for parole hearings and re-sentencing. [4] Despite such strides within the American criminal justice system, legislatures are slow-moving in amending laws to conform with the recent court decisions. Moreover, states that have adjusted their legislation still retain the right to interpret the appeals in accordance with their jurisdiction, meaning that petitions for parole or resentencing can be entirely denied. [5] In fact, while the aforementioned rulings have led to the changing of state laws, twenty-nine states still retain the right to sentence juveniles to life without parole, stripping them of their childhoods and entire lives.

Prior to 2012, the constitutional validity of life without parole sentences for juveniles had not been discussed in the Supreme Court. However, this precedent transformed with Miller on March 20, 2012. In 2003, Evan Miller, a fourteen-year-old resident of Alabama, killed Cole Cannon by burning Cannon’s trailer while the young man was inside. Miller’s case was transferred from the Lawrence County Juvenile Court to the Lawrence County Circuit Court, where Miller was pronounced guilty under his trial as an adult for capital murder during the course of an arson. [6] The defendant appealed the decision on the grounds that the verdict violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as it was unusual and excessive. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, thus landing the case in the hands of the Supreme Court. After much contention, with a slim margin of 5-4, the Supreme Court reversed the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision and held that “life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments” and that adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” [7]

While JLWOP sentences were ruled unconstitutional as a result of Miller, one question remained: what would happen to the 2,100 individuals behind bars under such sentences? While relitigation of past convictions places a burden on the legal system, unconstitutional sentences also undermine the legitimacy of a criminal justice system. The inconsistencies that followed the Miller ruling were resolved in Montgomery. In 2014, Henry Montgomery, a sixty-eight-year-old man who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole after shooting and killing a police officer at the age of seventeen, made a motion to correct his sentence on grounds that it was illegal in accordance with the Miller ruling. After being denied by the Louisiana Supreme Court, Montgomery filed a petition for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court, which was granted. On January 25, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Montgomery, stating that inmates serving for life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles must have a chance to argue for release. Thus, Montgomery extended the rule of Miller retroactively, changing the legal consequences of JLWOP sentences that were imposed before the enactment of the law. [8]

While the Miller and Montgomery rulings have put the state of juvenile life without parole sentences under heavy scrutiny, their effects have not been uniform across the country. Although states such as Iowa and Kansas have deemed life without parole sentences as unconstitutional and have even limited mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles, twenty-nine states have maintained their rights to these inhumane sentences. Indiana, for example, allows judges to sentence juveniles over the age of sixteen who have committed murder to life in prison without parole. In addition, states such as New Hampshire have left their statutes unchanged despite the Supreme Court rulings. [9]

Still, there is momentum for reform. With recent rulings such as Miller and Montgomery, juvenile life without parole sentences have come under the scrutiny of federal courts. Moreover, there is increasing pressure from the international community. In fact, the United States is the only United Nations member state which has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a human rights treaty which maintains that “neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” [10] While this treaty is established under international law, and specifically non-binding treaty law, it is legitimized under the principle of pacta sunt servanda which ensures that treaties are complied with under moral and political obligations. While 196 United Nations member countries have ratified the Convention, the United States, a leader in the international human rights community, continues to compromise its legitimacy as it neglects the CRC and upholds statutes in direct violation of the treaty.

As time progresses, the faults of the American criminal justice system will surface in their entirety. However, recognition of these failings is not enough to combat the unjust system. The justice system must continue to work to exonerate individuals, exercising the principle of retroactivity brought forth by the Montgomery ruling, giving defendants a chance to reclaim their lives from the grips of the past.

[1] “They Were Sentenced as ‘Superpredators." Who Were They Really?” Public Broadcasting Service,

www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/they-were-sentenced-as-superpredators-who-were-they-really/.

[2] Turner, Jennifer and Dakwar, Jamil. "Written Submission of the American Civil Liberties Union on Racial Disparities in Sentencing." American Civil Liberties Union, 2014, www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/141027_iachr_racial_disparities_aclu_submission_0.pdf.

[3] United States Supreme Court. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 . 25 June 2012.

[4] United States Supreme Court. Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280. 25 Jan. 2016.

[5] United States Supreme Court. Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280. 25 Jan. 2016.

[6] United States Supreme Court. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 . 25 June 2012

[7] United States Supreme Court. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 . 25 June 2012

[8] United States Supreme Court. Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280. 25 Jan. 2016.

[9] Press, The Associated. “A State-by-State Look at Juvenile Life without Parole.” AP News, Associated Press, 31 July 2017, apnews.com/9debc3bdc7034ad2a68e62911fba0d85.

[10] “Convention on the Rights of the Child," United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner , 1989, www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx.

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