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Overview Brief: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing

Published Sep 30, 2015, Elizabeth Scott, Thomas Grisso, Marsha Levick, and Laurence Steinberg

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Three United States Supreme Court decisions of the past decade have delineated the principle that children are developmentally different from adults in ways that matter for the fair punishment of juvenile offenders. The Court has prohibited the death penalty for juveniles and strictly limited the use of the sentence of life without parole—prohibiting the sentence for non-homicide offenses and, even for homicide, requiring courts to consider mitigating factors.

Some courts and legislatures have used the Court’s developmental framework to adopt further reforms in juvenile sentencing, including:

  • Abolishing altogether juvenile life without parole (JLWOP).
  • Putting additional restrictions on the use of JLWOP.
  • Revising or prohibiting mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Revising parole regulations for juveniles.

Similar reasoning can also apply to reforms addressing issues such as expungement of juvenile records, enhanced sentencing laws, and transfer laws. 

This brief is based on the full report “The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing," available at The preparation of the report and accompanying briefs was supported through Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice, an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.