The Houston Institute has joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and Leadership Conference on Race and Human Rights in filing an amicus brief opposing the imposition of life sentences without parole on juvenile offenders in the Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs cases (Miller-Jackson) currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The amicus brief contends that life without parole sentences for fourteen year-old offenders violate the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the historic role of racial stereotyping in imposing these sentences on children further undermines their validity.
Historically, the imposition of life without parole sentences is rooted in stereotyping. For much of the 20th century, courts widely held that children were less culpable than adults and therefore not subject to such severe penalties. But in the 1980s and 90s, the media, academics, and politicians increasingly characterized teen crime in racially coded terms. For example, a 2000 study of news broadcasts in six major U.S. cities found that 62% of the stories involving Latino youth were about murder or attempted murder, even though data from 1998 indicated that minority youth accounted for only 25% of all juvenile crime arrests. This false conflation between race, youth, and criminal behavior — the infamous “Central Park Jogger” case being the most notorious example — led to harsh sentences for children previously only reserved for adults.
Consistent with its beginnings, the life without parole sentence continues to be imposed on children of color at disproportionate rates. According to a 2008 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report, African American youth nationwide serve life without parole sentences “at a rate that is ten times higher than white youth.” Thus, the continuing influence of race on the sentencing of youth to life without parole renders it unconstitutional. Our coalition contends that the Supreme Court should categorically exempt youth from this extreme and final sentence.
Read our brief: