Can Minors Be Sentenced to Life in Prison?

  • By:David Bate

Criminal Defense Lawyer

Minors can be sentenced to life in prison under certain circumstances. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v Alabama that juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole. The Court explained that statutory scheme which require life without parole for juveniles violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The holding from Miller doesn’t mean that a juvenile can’t be sentenced to life without parole. It merely means that the state can’t make such a punishment automatic for a specific crime. The Court left open that life without parole could be imposed in the rare cases that a juvenile is “permanently incorrigible.” However, the Supreme Court has made clear that this is an unusual case and would need to be supported by detailed factual findings.

Another question that often comes up is “what is a juvenile” under Miller. Often times, people look to their state’s law on juvenile prosecutions, however the Supreme Court has explained that for purposes of mandatory life without parole, the measuring stick is 18 years of age without regard to whether the person would otherwise be prosecuted as an adult or child. For example, in a state like Michigan that puts people into the adult system at 17 years, a 17 year old charged as an adult can’t be sentenced to an automatic life without parole sentence while his 18 year old co-defendant could received a LWOP sentence.

Just because Miller says that juveniles can’t be sentenced to mandatory life without parole doesn’t mean that there isn’t reason to take sentencing seriously. A juvenile charged as an adult can constitutionally receive a very long sentence. Consider the slight different between a 16 year old who receives a 60 year sentence versus a life without parole sentence. In some cases, there will be little, if any, meaningful difference.

When considering sentencing options on serious offenses, the most experienced criminal defense lawyer Grand Rapids, MI relies on knows that using sentencing mitigation experts can yield results that make the difference between life sentence and a manageable term of years. In recent years, there has been a surge in use of social workers to collect social history and even documentary filmmakers to produce short videos giving the sentencing judge a glimpse into the life of the child. These tools can be effective in helping to humanize the client in front of a judge who knows very little except for the government’s story of what happened.



Thank you to our friends and contributors at Blanchard Law for their insight into criminal defense cases and sentencing for minors.

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