Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Roper v. Simmons: One Small Step for Christopher Simmons, One Giant Step for Juvenile Justice Reform

With this simple declaration ten years ago, the United States Supreme Court ended a centuries-old practice that left youth eligible for execution for murders they committed when they were under the age of eighteen.
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"The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. The judgment of the Missouri Supreme Court setting aside the sentence of death imposed upon Christopher Simmons is affirmed." Supreme Court of the United States, March 1, 2005

With this simple declaration ten years ago, the United States Supreme Court ended a centuries-old practice that left youth eligible for execution for murders they committed when they were under the age of eighteen. While the Court had prohibited the sentence for juveniles younger than sixteen in 1988, only a year later, in 1989, the Court held that 16 and 17 year olds could still be sentenced to death. Many were, in fact, executed in the subsequent years.

While hoped for, the Court's astonishing about-face, just 15 years later was not readily forecast. Rarely does the United States Supreme Court reverse itself. To do so in such a short time frame was truly unprecedented. As it happens, it wasn't even the advocacy community that sought the Court's review of the juvenile death penalty. The Missouri Supreme Court's 2003 decision to strike Simmons' death sentence -- despite the Supreme Court's 1989 ruling -- prompted the Missouri Attorney General to petition for review. Once granted, an exceptional array of researchers and scientists, academics, state Attorneys General, faith-based leaders, victims' family members, Nobel Laureates, international organizations, along with a myriad of professional associations and death penalty abolitionists marshalled their resources to shore up Simmons' court case -- just as a team of grass-roots advocates worked in the state legislatures, pushing several states to abolish the juvenile death penalty in the summer of 2004.

The immediate consequence of Roper was that it saved the lives of 72 individuals who were condemned to die for crimes they committed as children. More broadly, the Court relied on experts in adolescent development, holding that all juveniles under 18 are less culpable for their crimes than adults, are more susceptible to outside pressures, and are distinctly more capable of change and rehabilitation. Roper re-invigorated the principle of proportionality in our sentencing practices and ended the United States' dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to sentence children to death. The Court identified key attributes of adolescence and then framed them as constitutionally relevant principles that mandate particular treatment of children convicted of homicide and other serious crimes.

In the 10 years since Roper, the rapid evolution in our treatment of youth who commit crimes has left us breathless. Indeed, the long-term consequences of Roper are still being written, as the precise boundaries of the reform movement it spawned have yet to be drawn. In 2010, the Court banned life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses (Graham v. Florida (2010) and prohibited mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide two years later (Miller v. Alabama (2012). Like Roper, these decisions have had broader implications, paving the way for challenges to the constitutionality of other extremely long sentences that, while not technically life without parole, effectively leave people convicted of crimes they committed as children to die in prison or be released as senior citizens. Following Roper, Graham and Miller, state courts and legislatures are revisiting or dismantling mandatory minimum sentencing schemes for youth, juvenile sex offender registrations requirements, transfer laws governing the prosecution of children as adults, and even discretionary life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders.

Roper's recognition that adolescents are more susceptible to "outside pressures" also led the Court to re-examine the plight of children facing police interrogations. In J.D.B. v North Carolina (2011), the Court concluded that children are less equipped to make sound decisions with respect to waiver of their Miranda rights and are more prone to falsely confess when left alone with their interrogators. For the first time, the Court held that the question of whether a youth is in police "custody" and thus entitled to Miranda warnings must be analyzed through the perspective of a "reasonable juvenile." "It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave," wrote Justice Sotomayor. J.D.B.'s "reasonable juvenile" analysis not only altered the Miranda custody analysis, it has spurred legal challenges to the "felony murder" doctrine and such standard legal defenses as self-defense or duress that turn on the reasonableness of the suspect's actions.

Roper restored common sense and rationality to the debate about appropriate punishment for youthful offenders. This debate went off the rails in the 1990's when false predictions of coming teen violence by an army of young "superpredators" fanned the public's fears and led policymakers to throw away the lives of thousands of children, most of who were children of color. Roper gave us the tools to show another side of youthful offenders, a side that recognizes their immaturity, recklessness and their capacity for change -- providing hope and the chance for a restored life, replacing death and despair.

As we reflect on the breadth of Roper's impact 10 years later, we salute the many who played a hand in crafting those tools and the advocates around the country who have used them to stunning effect.

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