Board to Death: De Facto Juvenile Life Without Parole

By Amelia Courtney Hritz*

Volume 47.1

*This article was made possible through the Robert B. Kent Public Interest Law Fellowship, hosted by the Cornell Juvenile Justice Clinic and Justice 360. John Blume was instrumental in the development of this study and thought of the title. I am grateful to Lynn Johnson of the Cornell Statistical Consulting Unit for her statistical expertise. Special thanks to Caisa Royer, Stephen Ceci, and Valerie Hans for feedback on earlier drafts of this article. I am also thankful for feedback provided at the Law and Society Association Conference and Cornell Law School. I thank Christine Brittain, Hannah Bollinger, Michelle Morris, and Yangji Sherpa for their excellent research assistance.

Abstract

In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole absent a finding that the youth was incorrigible violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Court contemplated that states could remedy a Miller violation by offering parole hearings to juveniles serving life sentences, but did not address the fact that many states rarely grant parole to juveniles serving life sentences and afford them few due process rights at their parole hearings. This means that juveniles sentenced to life with parole are likely to die in prison regardless of the evidence of their rehabilitation. Moreover, juvenile offenders sentenced to life with parole before Miller may not have had the opportunity to present evidence of their youth as a mitigation factor at sentencing (or during parole hearings), unlike juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole after Miller. In order to investigate the difference between life with and life without parole, this article examines the parole system for individuals sentenced to life in South Carolina, a state that still gives the parole board complete discretion in their decision-making. Although South Carolina, like most states, has not reformed its parole procedures in response to Miller the state claims that juvenile offenders who appear before its parole boards are receiving a meaningful opportunity to obtain release. The article presents an analysis of over a decade of parole decisions involving 100 juvenile offenders and considers whether the state’s process is affording juveniles that meaningful opportunity. The results indicate that very few juveniles are paroled, and most are denied parole based solely on factors relating to the crime. In addition, there is no evidence that the juvenile parole grants have increased since Miller. The article concludes by discussing the implications for the future of Miller.

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