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Nancy Walsh, Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse 
Excerpt from Juveniles and the Death Penalty, Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
November, 2000

Life in Prison without Possibility of Release

The justice system's recent shift toward stronger punishment policies has been marked not only by increased use of the death penalty but by increases in the number of offenders—including juveniles who committed offenses prior to their 18th birthdays—being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Only Washington, DC, Indiana, and Oregon expressly prohibit courts from imposing life without parole on offenders younger than age 16 at the time of their offense (Logan, 1998). A few States effectively disallow a sentence of life without parole for such offenders by setting a minimum age for waiver or establishing sentencing limitations. Several States fail to indicate whether life without parole can be imposed on those younger than age 16, and some States do not use the sentence at all.

The overwhelming majority of American jurisdictions, however, allow life without parole for offenders younger than age 16. Some even make it mandatory for defendants convicted of certain offenses in criminal court. In Washington State, offenders as young as age 8 can be sentenced to life.1 In Vermont, 10-year-olds can face the sentence.2

Assessing the Constitutionality of Life in Prison Without Parole: Supreme Court Standards

The eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits punishment that is cruel and unusual. The Supreme Court has interpreted this prohibition to mean that punishment must be proportional to the crime for which it is imposed.3

Proportionality analysis in cases involving life without parole has been far less clear than in cases involving the death penalty. Beginning in the 1980's, the Supreme Court decided several cases focusing on the constitutionality of life sentences. In the first of these, Rummel v. Estelle,4 the Court upheld the constitutionality of a mandatory life sentence (with the possibility of parole) imposed under a Texas recidivist law. Holding that the State legislature knew best how to punish recidivists, the Court held that findings of disproportionality with respect to sentence length should be "exceedingly rare."5 Three years later, in Solem v. Helm,6 the Court reached a different result. Finding a sentence of life without parole disproportionate, the Court in Solem squarely rejected the State's argument that proportionality analysis does not apply to terms of imprisonment.

The Court identified three objective factors for courts to consider when analyzing proportionality:

  • The gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty.

  • Sentences imposed on other criminals (for more and less serious offenses) in the same jurisdiction.

  • Sentences imposed (for the same offense) in other jurisdictions.7

Unlike Rummel, the three-part test announced in Solem revealed the Court's willingness to undertake a detailed analysis of the proportionality of a sentence's length.

The Supreme Court's consideration of the constitutionality of life without parole 8 years later (in Harmelin v. Michigan8) provided little clarification of the applicable standards. A majority of the sharply divided Court rejected the petitioner's claim that life without parole was an unconstitutional sentence for the offense committed. Two members of the majority, however, held that proportionality analysis did not even apply outside the context of death penalty cases. Three justices (concurring separately) disagreed with this conclusion. Applying the first prong of Solem, these justices held that life without parole was not grossly disproportionate to the serious crimes the petitioner had committed. The other two factors (intrajurisdictional and interjurisdictional comparisons), they held, applied only in "the rare case in which a threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed leads to an inference of gross disproportionality."9 The four dissenting justices agreed that the eighth amendment contains a proportionality requirement and found that it had been violated by the petitioner's life sentence.10

Despite disagreement among the justices, the decision in Harmelin includes two important holdings: (1) the eighth amendment's proportionality analysis applies to capital and noncapital cases, and (2) in cases involving statutorily mandated minimum sentences (even life without parole), courts or other sentencing authorities need not consider mitigating factors such as age (Logan, 1998).

Cases Involving Juveniles

Challenges of sentences of life without parole have met with limited success in State courts and almost no success in Federal court in cases involving juvenile offenders11 (Logan, 1998). Most Federal courts have adopted a restrictive view when comparing the crime committed and the sentence imposed (the first factor of the Solem test), focusing almost exclusively on the seriousness of the offense committed without considering offender culpability and individual mitigating circumstances (Logan, 1998).12 The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Harris v. Wright,13 for example, upheld a mandatory life sentence for a 15-year-old convicted of murder, finding that "youth has no obvious bearing" on proportionality analysis.14 It also held that although capital punishment must be treated specially, "mandatory life imprisonment without parole is, for young and old alike, only an outlying point on the continuum of prison sentences."15 Like any other prison sentence, the court held, "it raises no inference of disproportionality when imposed on a murderer."16 Following the Supreme Court's ruling in Harmelin, the Harris court held that a detailed analysis of proportionality was necessary only in the rare case in which "'a threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed leads to an inference of gross disproportionality.'"17

State courts have been somewhat more flexible and willing to consider individual factors affecting an offender's culpability than Federal courts. In California, for example, a court reviewing life without parole must consider circumstances of the offense (e.g., motive, consequences, and extent of the defendant's involvement) and characteristics of the defendant (e.g., age, prior offenses, and mental capacity).18 California courts also must compare the challenged punishment with sentences imposed within and outside the State, as required by the second and third prongs of the Solem test.19 Courts in Kansas similarly consider the nature of the offense, the "character of the offender," and the Solem comparative factors.20

Invalidating a mandatory life sentence imposed on two 14-year-olds convicted of rape, the Kentucky Supreme Court in Workman v. Kentucky21 held that courts retain the power to determine whether "an act of the legislature violates the provisions of the Constitution." Although the court upheld the Kentucky law mandating life without parole for those convicted of rape as applied to adults, it held that a "different situation prevails when punishment of this stringent a nature is applied to a juvenile."22 Under all the circumstances of the case, the court held that life without parole for two 14-year-olds "shocks the general conscience of society today and is intolerable to fundamental fairness."23

In Naovarath v. State,24 a case involving the constitutionality of a life sentence imposed on a 13-year-old convicted of murder, the Supreme Court of Nevada undertook a similarly close examination of offender characteristics. Proportionality analysis, the court in Naovarath held, required consideration of the convict's age and his likely mental state at the time of the crime.25 Finding the sentence cruel and unusual, the court held that "children are and should be judged by different standards from those imposed upon mature adults."26

Other State courts have been less willing to consider a juvenile's age when assessing the constitutionality of life sentences. The Washington State Court of Appeals in State v. Massey,27 for instance, affirmed a life sentence for a 13-year-old convicted of murder, holding that proportionality analysis should not include consideration of the defendant's age, "only a balance between the crime and the sentence imposed."

State law in Illinois requires a mandatory life sentence for any defendant convicted of killing more than one person (even if convicted as an accomplice).28 The Illinois Supreme Court has not, as yet, addressed the constitutionality of the sentencing law as applied to juveniles convicted as accomplices in murder trials (Hanna, 2000).


1 State v. Furman, 853 P.2d 1092, 1102 (Wash. 1993).

2 VT. STAT. ANN. tit. 13, 2303 (Supp. 1997) and VT. STAT. ANN. tit. 33, 5506 (1991).

3 Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367 (1910) ("It is a precept of justice that a punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to the offense").

4 445 U.S. 263 (1980).

5 Rummel, 445 U.S. at 272.

6 463 U.S. 277 (1983).

7 Solem, 463 U.S. at 291-292.

8 501 U.S. 957 (1991).

9 Harmelin, 501 U.S. at 1005 (Kennedy, J., concurring).

10 Harmelin, 501 U.S. at 1013 (White, J., dissenting).

11 Data on life without parole cases involving juveniles currently are not being collected.

12 See, e.g., United States v. Simpson, 8 F.3d 546, 550 (7th Cir. 1993) ("'[A] particular offense that falls within legislatively prescribed limits will not be considered disproportionate unless the sentencing judge has abused his discretion'"), quoting United States v. Vasquez, 966 F.2d 254, 261 (7th Cir. 1992).

13 93 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. 1996).

14 Harris, 93 F.3d at 585. See also Rodriguez v. Peters, 63 F.3d 546, 568 (7th Cir. 1995) (refused to consider age of 15-year-old offender in challenge of life sentence's constitutionality).

15 Harris, 93 F.3d at 585.

16 Harris, 93 F.3d at 585.

17 Harris, 93 F.3d at 583, quoting Harmelin, 501 U.S. at 1005 (Kennedy, J., concurring).

18 People v. Hines, 938 P.2d 833, 443 (Cal. 1997), cert. denied, 118 S. Ct. 855 (1998).

19 People v. Thongvilay, 72 Cal. Rptr. 2d 738, 749 (Cal. App. 1998).

20 State v. Scott, 947 P.2d 466, 470 (Kan. Ct. App.), aff'd in part, rev'd in part. No. 75,684, 1998 WL 272730 (Kan. May 29, 1998).

21 429 S.W.2d 374, 377 (Ky. Ct. App. 1968).

22 Workman, 429 S.W.2d at 377.

23 Workman, 429 S.W.2d 374, 378 (Ky. 1968).

24 779 P.2d 944 (Nev. 1989).

25 Naovarath, 779 P.2d at 946.

26 Naovarath, 779 P.2d at 946-47. See also People v. Dillon, 668 P.2d 697, 726-27 (Cal. 1983) (reversing life sentence imposed on 17-year-old, noting youth's "unusual" immaturity).

27 803 P.2d 340, 348 (Wash. Ct. App. 1990).

28 In all 50 States, juveniles charged with acting as accomplices to murder may be transferred to criminal court. Unlike Illinois, however, 34 States provide judges discretion when deciding on an appropriate sentence for such offenders.

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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