Life without parole- Cruel and Unusual?

During our Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson book discussion held virtually on April 26, we were speaking on the Equal Justice Initiative’s 2012 US Supreme court win in the case Miller v. Alabama[1]to ban mandatory life without parole sentences imposed on children convicted of homicides. As we discussed, a participant shared that on April 22, four days prior to our event, the US Supreme Court ruled against Brett Jones[2],thus allowing for mandatory life without parole sentences for children despite the Miller case. This information added another aspect to our conversation concerning equity in law and determining what is cruel and unusual for children versus adults.

Miller v. Alabama

In July 2003, Evan Miller, at the age of 14, killed Cole Cannon. He was tried as an adult in 2004 and was indicted in 2006. Miller was sentenced to a mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility parole. A motion for a new trial was sought by Miller, on the basis that a life without the possibility of parole sentence was cruel and unusual punishment under the eighth amendment. The case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The case sought to answer that question does a life without parole sentence on a child violate the eighth and fourteenth amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment? In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that yes, it violates the eighth and fourteenth amendments. Children were found to be constitutionally different from adults and the sentence of life without parole would be cruel and unusual.

Amendment Background

The Eighth Amendment states:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

But what is cruel and unusual punishment? The Constitution does not specify what is considered cruel and unusual, leaving courts to interpret what those specifics are. The amendment was adopted in 1791, 15 years after the start of the American Revolution, so what would have been considered cruel and unusual for that time and does that have any bearing to what is considered cruel and unusual now?

The Fourteenth Amendment states in Section One:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, three years after the end to the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. Are a child’s privileges or immunities abridged by a life without parole sentence? Do they receive equal protection under the law? What is meant by equal protection under the law in consideration of the time it was ratified- the post-civil war years?

Jones v. Mississippi

In the recent ruling of Jones v. Mississippi case[3],the Supreme Court sought to answer the question “if the eighth amendment requires a sentencing authority to find that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before it may impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.” The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that no, it does not require the sentencing authority to find whether a juvenile is permanently incorrigible. The Law Dictionary defines “incorrigible” as ‘unmanageable or uncontrollable.” The ruling means that the sentencing authority (i.e. judge) does not have to determine that the juvenile is not able to be rehabilitated before making a sentence; they can make a sentence without that determination. How does this ruling affect those currently incarcerated? According to a 2016 report[4],2,295 people were serving juvenile life without parole sentences. Some of them could have had a resentencing trial but with the latest Supreme Court ruling, it may be difficult to prove rehabilitation in court. Brett Jones was fifteen when he murdered his grandfather in 2004. He is now 32 and set to live out the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Setting Precedent with Decisions

It may seem like the latest ruling in Jones case is contradictory to Miller. When ruling, the Supreme Court could follow precedent, meaning that it would consider previous cases of the same legal issue and rule the current case in line with previous ones. Setting precedent creates stability in law and provides credibility to the legal system.[5]Following precedent is not mandatory though and the Supreme Court can deviate from it. Deviation may occur around ideological perspectives, causing a split in the decision. The decisions in Jones and Miller were not unanimous, and in the Miller case, it was split 5 to 4. An example of deviating from precedent is with the 2012 Shelby County v. Holder case[6], which ruled that section 4(b) of the 1965 Voter Rights Act exceeded Congress’ authority. The opinion cited that the constraints put in place by section 4(b) made sense in the 1960s and 1970s but was not responsive to the current conditions. Considering precedent is not the only factor in determining cases; the current conditions of society and culture can influence Supreme Court Justices’ rulings in addition to the arguments and evidence presented in the case.


The US legal system is entrusted with administering justice equitably, fairly, and consistently, but issues arise with who determines what is equitable, fair, and consistent in view of current times and precedents. There seems to be more questions than answers. Looking globally, in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted in 1966, it states in Article 6 that “Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.” The United States is a state party on this treaty but sentences minors to life without parole. Does a sentence of life without parole constitute a death sentence for minors? Is it cruel and unusual” In answering this question and the others, let us consider this quote by Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”


  1. Miller v. Alabama, Oyez at
  2. Jones v. Mississippi, Oyez at
  3. Garrett, Brandon Justices’ Life Sentence Ruling Is A Step Back For Youth Rights May 2, 2021
  4. Mills, John R., Dorn, Anna M., Hrtiz, Amelia Courtney Juvenile Life Without Parole in Law and Practice: Chronicling the Rapid Change Underway American University Law Review Vol. 65 Iss. 3
  5. Wermiel, Scott SCOTUS for law students: Supreme Court precedent Oct. 2, 2019 
  6. Shelby County v. Holder, Oyez

Written by: Jenna Pontious, Public Services Librarian 


By rcll

May 21, 2021

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