The Miller Trilogy and the Persistence of Extreme Juvenile Sentences
Written By: Cara H. Drinan
In a series of Eighth Amendment cases referred to as the Miller trilogy, the Supreme Court significantly limited the extent to which minors may be exposed to extreme sentences. Specifically, in this line of cases the Court abolished capital punishment for minors and narrowed the instances when minors may be sentenced to life without parole. Only minors convicted of homicide who are found to be “in-corrigible” may now be subject to a death-in-custody sentence. In limiting extreme sentences for youth in these ways, the Supreme Court relied upon the social and medical science that demonstrates youth are simultaneously less culpable for their acts and more amenable to rehabilitation than adults.
While the Miller trilogy has set in motion many significant juvenile justice reforms, youth in America are still exposed to extreme sentences—sentences that are disproportionate given the nature of the juvenile brain. Two mechanisms operate to maintain this status quo. First, automatic transfer provisions allow children to be charged, tried, and convicted in criminal court as if they were adults. This legal fiction flies in the face of the science on which the Miller trilogy was predicated. Second, once in adult court, youth are subject to mandatory sentencing schemes that were drafted with adults in mind. Again, this automatic sentencing without regard for the mitigating qualities of youth ignores the logic of the Miller trilogy. Indeed, some courts have recognized the disconnect between the Supreme Court’s declaration that “kids are different” for sentencing purposes and the ongoing use of automatic transfer provisions and mandatory sentencing schemes for youth. For the most part, though, courts view correction of these laws as purely a legislative prerogative. In this Article, I argue that, in fact, there is a clear path for courts to find both automatic transfer laws and mandatory minimums as applied to youth unlawful after Miller.
This Article proceeds in three parts. Part I provides a brief overview of the Miller trilogy and the reforms that this line of cases has set in motion over the last ten years. Part II then discusses how the combination of automatic transfer provisions and man-datory sentencing schemes operates to expose youth to extreme sentences notwith-standing the Court’s recent case law holding that children are not “miniature adults.” In Part III, I make the case that each of these mechanisms—transfer laws and manda-tory minimums as applied to youth—are unconstitutional after Miller. Finally, by way of conclusion, I address two recurring criticisms of this thesis.Subscribe to ACLR