Washington Law Review

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Miller's Promise: Re-Evaluating Extreme Criminal Sentences for Children

October 01, 2014 | 89 Wash. L. Rev. 963

Scientific, legal, and societal notions about youth have come together to reaffirm an age-old concept—children are different and they change as they grow older. In recent decisions, the United States Supreme Court has required courts and legislatures to take a new look at extreme criminal sentences imposed upon children. Life without parole sentences and decades-long, determinate sentences are constitutionally suspect when applied to children because they fail to adequately account for the dynamism of youth. Miller v. Alabama and Graham v. Florida announced two important principles: (1) that an extreme sentence can only be imposed upon a child following an individualized hearing at which a court considers myriad mitigating factors; and (2) that in the vast majority of cases, the child should have a realistic opportunity for parole at some point in the future. During the recently completed 2014 session, the Washington legislature took steps to address some of the Supreme Court’s concerns, but work remains before Washington law fully incorporates the principles laid out in Miller and Graham. Legal principles announced in the Court’s recent cases require individualized sentencing hearings any time a child may be sentenced to decades behind bars. Moreover, in no case should a child be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without some possibility of release in the future.

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