Among its rulings today, the court decided Miller v. Alabama by  a narrow 5-4 margin, ruling that statutes in Alabama and Arkansas that require life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of homicides as adults violated the parameters set for punishment in the Eighth Amendment.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, ruled that:

[Such a mandatory sentencing scheme] runs afoul of our cases’ requirement of individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties. We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The case involved two fourteen year olds ,one in Alabama, the other in Arkansas, convicted of murders that involved multiple conspirators, including an adult in one of the cases. The Court’s ruling also took note of the juveniles’ home lives, drug abuse and other factors, drawing from the precedent of Graham v. Florida, where the court noted juveniles were a different “class of offenders” and that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses was “cruel and unusual,” as well as Roper v. Simmons, where the court banned the death penalty for minors.

Graham also found life without parole to be a punishment equivalent to the death penalty. The court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, then, linked the precedent in Roper to that in Graham to establish that because the death penalty for minors is “cruel and unusual” and because life without parole is equivalent to the death penalty, minors ought not be sentenced to life in prison without parole even in capital offenses.

Writing for the minority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that such application of the Eighth Amendment was subjective, that it was not “unusual” to have sentencing guidelines on the books that mandated life in prison without parole for a 17 year old charged with murdering an innocent victim, and that there was no “national consensus” against such sentencing guidelines. The minority opinion disputed the court’s finding that there was no discretion in sentencing the two fourteen year olds in this case to life in  prison without parole because prosecutors could have tried the children as juveniles but decided instead to try them as adults, thus showing discretion to Roberts’ satisfaction.

Decency, Roberts noted, did not mean leniency, and the court ought to “take guidance” from “evolving standards of decency.” Roberts complains that by basing its ruling on the principles articulated in Graham and Roper, the majority “disregards” the fact that there’s been widespread adoption of the sentencing guidelines the court has struck down. Roberts argues that in Graham, legislators had not intended for juveniles to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole, that the practice was rare and the opportunity for it created inadvertently, and that this was not the case for the 2,000+ juveniles serving life without parole sentences for capital offenses.

The Chief Justice did not believe the majority ruling was soundly rooted in the precedent set in Graham and Roper either:

[T]he Court’s holding does not follow from Roper  and  Graham.  Those cases undoubtedly stand for the proposition that teenagers are less mature, less responsible, and less fixed in their ways than adults—not that a Supreme Court case was needed to establish that.
What they do not stand for, and do not even suggest, is that legislators—who also know that teenagers are different from adults—may not require life without parole for juveniles who commit the worst types of murder.

In his own dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas makes the strict constitutionalist case:

As I have previously explained, “the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause was originally understood as prohibiting torturous methods of punishment—specifically methods akin to those that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted.” … The clause does not contain a “proportionality principle.”  …In  short, it does not authorize courts to invalidate any punishment they deem disproportionate to the severity of the crime or to a particular class of offenders. Instead, the clause “leaves the unavoidably moral question of who ‘deserves’ a particular non-prohibited method of punishment to the judgment of the legislatures that authorize the penalty.”

Read the whole ruling. (pdf)