Can Mandatory Minimums Ever Be Applied to Juvenile Offenders?
Updated: Oct 25
Since the United States Supreme Court handed down the Graham v. Florida decision in 2010 and Graham’s inevitable sequel, Miller v. Alabama, in 2012, there have been two principles of law operating in conflict with each other: mandatory minimum sentences and the unique way the law treats juveniles. Graham held that a life sentence for a juvenile offender for a non-lethal crime violated Eighth Amendment rights by being too harsh a punishment. Miller extended that doctrine to include mandatory life sentences for more severe, lethal crimes as well. But what about mandatory sentences that are not life sentences? The Court’s arguments in these two decisions speak to diminished capacities of juvenile offenders, but that reasoning is not negated by a less severe offense. A minor who steals a car does not suddenly have the capacity of an adult just because grand theft auto does not carry a mandatory life sentence. This then begs the following question: Should mandatory minimums ever be applied to juvenile offenders?
In Graham, the petitioner was sixteen when he committed armed burglary and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In ruling that the such a sentence was cruel and unusual for a minor, the Court articulated some of the reasoning behind treating juveniles differently than adults. The Court ruled that an offender’s age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment and that criminal procedure should take age into account. The opinion continues beyond the pre-trial psychological reasoning and comments on how juveniles navigate the criminal justice system more poorly than adults. Juveniles’ limited understanding of the justice system and their inherent mistrust of adults may lead them to make bad decision in the course of the process.
The Court identified other differences between adult offenders and juvenile offenders. In Thompson v. Oklahoma, the Court stated that less culpability should attached to juveniles because their inexperience, their lack of education, and their inferior intelligence make them less able to understand the consequences of his or her conduct while, at the same time, make them more likely to be motivated by emotion and peer pressure. In Roper v. Simmons, the Court held that those same characteristics also make juveniles less susceptible to deterrence.
This is not an aberration. Juveniles are held to a different standard in every legal discipline. The Restatement (Second) of Contracts refers to juveniles as infants and states that, “…a natural person has the capacity to incur only voidable contractual duties until the beginning of the day before the person’s eighteenth birthday.” The Restatement (Second) of Torts states, “[i]f the actor is a child, the standard of conduct to which he must conform to avoid being negligent is that of a reasonable person of like age, intelligence, and experience under like circumstances.” Juveniles are treated differently in every corner of the law.
So why are juveniles ever subject to the same mandatory minimums and standards of adult offenders? A difference in the crime does not change the capacity of a juvenile nor does it affect the reasoning articulated by the Court over the years. A sixteen-year-old committing any crime would still lack experience, education, and intelligence compared to adults. A sixteen-year-old committing any crime would still distrust adults and runs the risk of making poor decisions regarding their legal defense.
In Alabama, robbery in the third degree is a Class C felony that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year and one day in prison. This is not a lethal crime, like in Miller, and it is not a life sentence, like in Graham, but it should still not be blindly applied to a juvenile offender without proper consideration of the offender’s diminished mental state. A juvenile’s disadvantages are inherent and are not modified by the severity of their conduct. A juvenile who commits a robbery is no more of an adult than one who commits murder.
If legislators wish to provide a mandatory minimum sentence for crimes, they would need to include a provision in the statute that specifically identifies the sentence for juvenile offenders and that sentence should differ from the standard to which adult offenders are held. Such a provision would then take a juvenile’s disadvantages into consideration, it would hold them to a different standard than adults, and it would be fairer. Specificity on how the statute applies to juveniles is necessary lest the statute fall short of the standard set forth in Graham that reads, “…criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account at all would be flawed.”