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For Further Study:

  • Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010); Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455(2012); (Im) maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults, Elizabeth Cauffman & Laurence Steinberg, 18 Behav. Sci. Law 741 (2000); Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, Laurence Steinberg & Elizabeth S. Scott, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009 (2003).

Juvenile Offenders Before and After Graham v. Florida

Compiled by Daniel Dubois and Zach Zemlin

Overview: Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miler v. Alabama outlawed the most severe punishments for juvenile offenders on the theory that juveniles are generally less culpable than adults due to their immaturity. While the social science agrees in the main, studies have also found that some juveniles are mature beyond their years. Using that fact as a starting point, the vocal minority opinions in Roper, Graham, and Miller would allow courts to make a maturity assessment on a case-by-case basis and impose the most severe punishments if they deemed them appropriate. This web page will give an overview of the three key cases and consider what the social science cited in those cases adds to this ongoing debate.

Foundations: Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)


Christopher Simmons, age 17, murdered Shirley Crook by breaking into her house, tying up her hands and feet, wrapping her face in duct tape, and throwing her off a bridge.1 Simmons was arrested two days later after bragging to his friends that "he had killed a woman 'because the bitch seen my face.'"2 Simmons waived his Miranda rights and confessed to the murder, agreeing to perform a videotaped reenactment at the crime scene.

Simmons was charged with burglary, kidnapping, stealing, and murder in the first degree. Missouri tried Simmons as an adult and he was convicted on all four counts. The defense called no witnesses. During the penalty phase, Missouri put forth aggravating factors in support of their request for the death penalty. Specifically, they noted that "the murder was committed for the purpose of receiving money; was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing lawful arrest of the defendant; and involved depravity of mind and was outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman." Families for Simmons and Crook testified and Simmons’ attorney raised the issue of Simmons’ age as a potential mitigating factor.3 The jury did not find that Simmons’ age outweighed the aggravating factors proven by the state prosecutor and recommended the death penalty.

Years later, Simmons appealed under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and the Missouri Supreme Court found that the logic of Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), also prohibited the execution of juveniles who are under eighteen when they committed their crime.4 Simmons was resentenced to life without the possibility of parole ("LWOP"). Missouri appealed and Simmons’ case reached the Supreme Court in 2005.

US Supreme Court Decision

In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy looked to the justifications behind the prohibition on executing juvenile offenders less than sixteen years old from Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988) and held that they apply in equal force to juvenile offenders between sixteen and eighteen years old. Specifically, he pointed to some of the same issues the Court would later raise in Graham, noting the "lack of maturity and…underdeveloped sense of responsibility among the young," adding that "these qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions."5 Justice Kennedy also noted that juveniles are "more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure" and "the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult."6 Looking at these differences together, Justice Kennedy concluded that juveniles have a diminished capacity and therefore do not fall among the worst offenders, meaning that group of offenders for whom the death penalty is appropriate.

Justice Kennedy applied two social purposes served by the death penalty to the case of juvenile offenders and found that neither could justify the execution of offenders below age eighteen.7


Justice Kennedy quickly dismissed retribution, noting that there is no proportionality "if the law’s most severe penalty is imposed on one whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity." While not cited for that particular point, the social science literature is substantially in support of Justice Kennedy’s proposition.8


Justice Kennedy also raised the issue of diminished capacity, nothing that "the absence of evidence of deterrent effect is of special concern because the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults suggest as well that juveniles will be less susceptible to deterrence."9 Again, Justice Kennedy did not use social science evidence to support this particular point, but the majority of the social science literature mirrors Justice Kennedy’s proposition.10

Dissenting Opinions

The dissenting Justices focused on the possibility that while "adolescents as a class are undoubtedly less mature…the Court has adduced no evidence impeaching the seemingly reasonable conclusion reached by many state legislatures: that at least some 17 year old murderers are sufficiently mature to deserve the death penalty in an appropriate case."11 In her dissenting opinion, Justice O’Connor further suggested that the assessment of a youthful defendant’s maturity is an appropriate question for the jury.12 Justice O’Connor also sought evidence for the Majority’s point that "only in rare cases [are] seventeen year old murderers…sufficiently mature and [have] act[ed] with sufficient depravity to warrant the death penalty."13 Justice O’Connor took issue with the aggregation of all juveniles in the Court’s analysis, ignoring the individual circumstances of the defendants.

Justice Scalia also dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas. In his opinion, Justice Scalia found that "the studies cited by the Court offer scant support for a categorical prohibition of the death penalty for murderers under 18."14 He continued: "At most, these studies conclude that, on average, or in most cases, persons under 18 are unable to take moral responsibility for their actions. Not one of the citied studies opines that all individuals under 18 are unable to appreciate the nature of their crimes."15

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)


Terrence Jamar Graham grew up in a home with parents addicted to crack cocaine. He was smoking cigarettes and drinking at age 9 and smoking marijuana by age 13.16 At age 16, Graham and three accomplices attempted to rob a restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. Graham and another youth entered the restaurant through an unlocked back door, left open by a third youth who worked at the restaurant. Graham’s accomplice twice hit the restaurant manager in the back of the head with a metal bar. When the manager started yelling, Graham and his two accomplices ran out of the restaurant and jumped into a getaway car driven by a fourth accomplice. The manager required stitches for his head wound. Graham and his accomplices did not take any money.

Graham was arrested and charged as an adult with armed burglary with assault or battery and attempted armed robbery. The two charges carried with them maximum penalties of LWOP and 15 years respectively. Graham signed a plea agreement, under which he was placed on probation for 6 years and had to serve 12 months in county jail.17 In his letter to the trial court, Graham was optimistic about his future, writing, “this is my first and last time getting in trouble” and that if given a second chance he would, "do whatever it takes to get to the NFL."

Unfortunately, Graham was unable to avoid the law and six months after his release, he was arrested again for two attempted robberies.18 Both were committed with two twenty year old accomplices. After his arrest, Graham admitted that he had committed two or three other robberies in addition to the two he had committed that evening. Graham ultimately admitted to violating his parole by fleeing when the police tried to pull him over following the second robbery.

The same trial judge who put Graham on probation presided over his parole violation hearing. Under Florida law, Graham could receive a minimum of five years or a maximum of life imprisonment. Graham’s attorney asked for five years, while the state asked for thirty years on the armed burglary and fifteen on the attempted armed robbery. After various parties testified, the judge ruled that "given [Graham’s] escalating pattern of criminal conduct, it is apparent to the Court that [Graham has] decided that this is the way [he] is going to live [his] life and the only thing [the Judge] can do now is to try and protect the community from [Graham’s] actions."19 Graham was found guilty of the armed burglary and armed robbery charges and sentenced to the maximum sentence for each: life for the armed burglary and fifteen years for the armed robbery. Since Florida has no parole system, Graham, 17 years old when he committed the crimes and 19 years old at sentencing, was effectively charged with LWOP, barring a grant of executive clemency. Graham’s lawyers appealed the LWOP sentence, claiming it violated the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. After losing in the lower courts, Graham’s case ultimately reached the US Supreme Court.20

US Supreme Court Decision

In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy described the four penological goals that legislatures can consider when developing sentencing practice: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.21 In the Court’s opinion, none of these four goals provide adequate justification for LWOP sentences in cases involving juvenile non-homicide offenders.


Justice Kennedy found that retribution is a legitimate goal, but it cannot support the sentence at issue here. He wrote, "the heart of retribution rationale is that a criminal sentence must be directly related to the personal culpability of the criminal offender." The social science literature generally agrees, suggesting that this lack of culpability of juveniles arises out of their immaturity.22


Similar to his argument against the retributive effect of LWOP for juvenile non-homicide offenders, Justice Kennedy noted, "the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults suggest…that juveniles will be less susceptible to deterrence…Because juveniles’ lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility…often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions, they are less likely to take a possible punishment into consideration when making decisions."23


The goal of incapacitation is to protect against recidivism, which Justice Kennedy admitted is a serious risk to public safety: "statistics show 67% of former inmates released from state prisons are charged with at least one new crime within three years."24 Despite the statistics, Justice Kennedy argued that LWOP should be limited to those offenders who will forever be a danger to society, and the "characteristics of juveniles make that judgment questionable."25 He continued, quoting Roper: "It is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."26

Justice Kennedy further adds "a [LWOP] sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity." He concluded, "Incapacitation cannot override all other considerations, lest the Eighth Amendment’s rule against disproportionate sentences be a nullity."27


It is clear that rehabilitation is precluded in the case of inmates serving sentences of LWOP. Justice Kennedy wrote that imposing a LWOP sentence on a juvenile non-homicide offender is "not appropriate in light of [the offender’s] capacity for change and limited moral culpability."28

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Thomas, writing in dissent, touched on what he saw to be the problems with a general prohibition on LWOP for juvenile non-homicide offenders.29 In his opinion, the question of whether to impose such a sentence should be reserved for the state legislatures and ultimately the judges and juries who hear the cases. He noted that while the social science evidence suggests that juveniles are "generally less culpable and more capable of growth than adults," this is not always the case.30 In Justice Thomas’ view, LWOP sentences should remain available in those select few cases where the crime committed was exceptionally depraved and the juvenile non-homicide offender is an exception to the general rule that juveniles tend to be less culpable than their adult counterparts.

US Supreme Court Holding and Effect

After additional discussion, the Court found that the Eighth Amendment prohibits LWOP sentences for juvenile non-homicide offenders. Aside from reducing Graham’s sentence to twenty-five years, this ruling reduced the sentences of the 122 additional juvenile non-homicide offenders serving LWOP sentences nationwide.31

Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)


This was a consolidation of two cases: Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. In Jackson, Kuntrell Jackson, age 14, and two friends robbed a video store.32 During the course of the robbery, one of Jackson’s friends shot the clerk. The prosecutor decided to try Jackson as an adult on charges of capital felony murder and aggravated robbery. Jackson was convicted on both counts and the judge was required to follow mandatory sentencing guidelines and impose a sentence of LWOP.

In Miller, Evan Miller, age 14, and a friend robbed his mother’s drug dealer’s trailer.33 During the robbery, Evan’s friend beat the man repeatedly with a baseball bat. In an attempt to cover up what they thought was a murder they burned down the trailer. Investigators later discovered that the man survived the beating and ultimately died in the fire. Miller was tried as an adult and convicted of murder in the course of arson. He received the mandatory sentence of LWOP. After numerous appeals, both cases reached the Supreme Court and they were consolidated.

US Supreme Court Decision

In her majority opinion, Justice Kagan recounted the Court’s justifications for their holdings in Roper and Graham.34 Specifically, she cited Graham for the proposition that the four penological justifications for imposing sentences on offenders—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation—do not justify imposition of LWOP sentences on juvenile offenders. The opinion relies on the same studies justifying the Court’s ruling in Graham and Roper.35

Dissenting Opinions

Chief Justice Roberts wrote a dissenting opinion, mirroring the justifications given in Roper and Graham (i.e., while a plurality of juveniles are less culpable as a result of their age, there are certain instances where juveniles are functionally equivalent to adults). In addition, the Chief Justice believed that sentencing policies should be left to legislatures, not dictated by the Court.36 Finally, the Chief Justice added that the prohibition on LWOP sentences for all juvenile defendants did not logically follow from Roper and Graham. Those cases, in his opinion, were justified partially because they covered special circumstances (i.e., juvenile death penalty cases and juvenile non-homicide offenders), whereas this, in his opinion, is effectively judicial overreach.37

US Supreme Court Holding

The Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for those under age eighteen at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. At the time Miller was decided, there were roughly 2,500 inmates nationwide serving LWOP for homicides committed before age eighteen, and it logically follows that a number of these offenders had their sentences reduced following the Court’s ruling.38

Where are we after Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama?

With the support of social science evidence related to the moral culpability of adolescents, the Court has prohibited the death penalty for offenders who were less than eighteen years old when they committed their crimes, and mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders, regardless of their crime. As with any area of law, the Court could react to changes in public opinion (and ultimately decisions by state legislatures) and make new rulings contrary to these opinions, but so far the court has not done so.


As one might expect, the issue of juvenile culpability is heavily debated in the social science literature. The current consensus, as described in the majority opinions in Roper, Graham, and Miller, is that juvenile offenders are generally less culpable. As with any general rule, there are some juveniles who are exceptions and exhibit the psychological maturity of adults. The two papers described below clearly summarize the current debate and support both the majority and minority opinions in Roper, Graham, and Miller.

(Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults (Elizabeth Cauffman & Laurence Steinberg, 18 Behav. Sci. Law 741 (2000))

This study by Elizabeth Cauffman and Laurence Steinberg looked at "the influence of three psychosocial factors (responsibility, perspective, and temperance) on maturity of judgment"39 in adolescents and college students. The three factors they chose were, in their estimation, the key elements of "maturity of judgment," a trait held by those who make better, less antisocial decisions. By surveying students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades and college students both over and under 21 years old, they sought to determine whether age had any correlation with psychosocial maturity and if there was a certain age or range of ages during which psychosocial maturity was equivalent to that of an adult.


Source: Cauffman & Steinberg, (Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults, 18 Behav. Sci. Law 741 (2000).

Their findings suggested that while psychosocial maturity increases with age, a juvenile who is particularly psychosocially mature will make better, less antisocial decisions than an adult who is psychosocially immature. In short, "psychosocial maturity, rather than age, is a better predictor of decision-making."40 Interestingly, the researchers found that between sixteen and nineteen years old is the most important transition point in psychosocial development. Based on the current law, eighteen is the cut-off for mandatory LWOP sentences and the death penalty, putting it within this age range.

The study, as one might expect, supported the conclusions of both the majority and dissenting opinions in Roper, Graham, and Miller. In all three cases, the majority relied on the reduced maturity of juvenile offenders to justify their prohibition on imposing the most severe punishments on those offenders. This study suggested that they are right, in the main: juveniles are, generally, less psychosocially mature than adults, particularly until age nineteen.


Source: Cauffman & Steinberg, (Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults, 18 Behav. Sci. Law 741 (2000).

The dissent in all three cases agreed with the findings above, but raised concerns about juvenile offenders who had the maturity level to understand the severity of their actions and therefore did not deserve the deference granted to them by the legal system by imposition of a lesser sentence. The researchers also supported this finding: "The significant numbers of psychosocially mature and immature adolescents suggest that it is important to consider individual differences, rather than simply age, when assessing decision-making ability or maturity of judgment among adolescents."41

Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty
(Laurence Steinberg & Elizabeth S. Scott, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009 (2003))

This paper by Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott summarized a number of studies looking at the psychological differences between juveniles and adults and applied those differences to the question of culpability of juvenile offenders. The three factors the authors focused on are deficiencies in decision-making capacity, the influence of external circumstances on juveniles, and the unformed character of juveniles as a group.

The first factor, the reduced decision making capacity of juveniles, impacts the susceptibility of juveniles to peer pressure. Specifically, two separate studies have shown that juveniles are more directly and indirectly influenced by peers than are adults.42 In addition, adolescents are more likely to discount future consequences and are not as future-oriented as adults.43 The authors believed that these factors support the conclusion that juveniles are less culpable than adults because these shortcomings are a function of their age and in most cases, the offenders will outgrow these issues as they develop psychologically.44

The second factor, the greater influence of external coercive circumstances, is based on studies showing that adolescents lack the freedom to extricate themselves from a setting likely to cause criminal behavior.45 In addition, other research has shown that adolescents respond more emotionally and viscerally to threats than do adults.46 In short, antisocial behavior by adolescents is more easily attributed to external circumstances than any personal faults of the offender. It is almost universally accepted that these characteristics change in the late teen years, leading the authors to conclude that penalizing a juvenile offender as harshly as a more fully developed adult is unjust.47

The third factor, unformed character, suggests that the overall bad character determination that juries make about adult offenders cannot be applied to juveniles. Studies suggested that only a small percentage of adolescents who engage in risky and illegal behavior carry those traits into adulthood.48 In addition, the identity crisis that many teens face is resolved by adulthood, leaving open the option for individual offenders to change in their late teen years.49

The authors’ overall conclusion, supported by their findings, is that juveniles should be charged separately from adults and the penalties for juveniles should be more lenient than those imposed on their adult counterparts.50

General Summary

Despite the recent decisions in Roper, Graham, and Miller, the debate surrounding juvenile punishment is far from over. The minority opinions in each case talked about exceptions to the general rule of reduced culpability for juveniles, as is noted in each of the two papers we discussed. Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to determine on a case-by-case basis whether a juvenile offender is simply succumbing to peer pressure and will change once they reach adulthood of if their early offenses are indicative of a life of antisocial behavior. Until that case-by-case determination is possible, it is unlikely that the Court will shift back to allowing the most severe punishments for juvenile offenders.

Footnote Resources:

1 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 556 (2005).

2 Id. at 557.

3 Id. at 558.

4 Id. at 559-560.

5 Id. at 569.

6 Id. at 570.

7 Id. at 571.

8 Steinberg & Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1013 (2003) ("The available evidence supports the conclusion that, like offenders who are mentally retarded and mentally ill, adolescents are less culpable than typical adults because of diminished decision-making capacity.").

9 Roper at 571.

10 Steinberg & Scott, supra note 8, at 1013.

11 Id. at 588.

12 Id. at 602.

13 Id. at 599.

14 Id. at 618.

15 Id.; see e.g., Cauffman & Steinberg, (Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults, 18 Behav. Sci. Law, 741, 741 (2000) ("The significant numbers of psychosocially mature and immature adolescents suggest that it is important to consider individual differences, rather than simply age, when assessing decision-making ability or maturity of judgment among adolescents.")

16 Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 53 (2010).

17 Id. at 54.

18 Id. at 55.

19 Id. at 57.

20 Id. at 58.

21 Id. at 71.

22 See e.g., Steinberg, supra note 8; Cauffman, supra note 14.

23 Id. at 72; see e.g., Steinberg & Scott, supra note 8, at 1012 ("In general, adolescents use a risk-reward calculus that places relatively less weight on risk, in relation to reward, that that used by adults.").

24 Id. at 73.

25 Id. at 73.

26 Id. at 73; see e.g., Steinberg & Scott, supra note 8, at 1015 ("Indeed, studies of criminal careers indicate that the vast majority of adolescents who engage in criminal or delinquent behavior desist from crime as they mature into adulthood.").

27 Id. at 73.

28 Id. at 74; see e.g., Steinberg & Scott, supra note 8, at 1015.

29 Id. at 113.

30 See Steinberg & Scott, supra note 8, at 1016 ("Adult punishment of psychologically mature youths might be fair if these individuals could be identified with some degree of certainty.").

31 Id. at 63.

32 Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2461 (2012).

33 Id. at 2462.

34 Id. at 2465.

35 See e.g., Steinberg, supra note 8; Cauffman, supra note 14.

36 Id. at 2482.

37 Id. at 2480.

38 Id. at 2477.

39 Cauffman & Steinberg, supra note 14, at 741.

40 Cauffman at 755.

41 Cauffman at 751.

42 Cauffman & Scott, supra note 8, at 1012.

43 Id.

44 Id. at 1014.

45 Id.

46 Id.

47 Id. at 1017.

48 Id. at 1014.

49 Id.

50 Id. at 1017.