June 25, 2012

American Psychological Association Lauds High Court Decision Rejecting Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles Convicted of Homicide

Scientific research demonstrates that juveniles should not be held to same standards of culpability as adults, court rules

WASHINGTON—The American Psychological Association issued the following statement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today that laws providing for mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole are unconstitutional as applied to juveniles who are convicted of homicide:

“We are gratified that the Supreme Court again agreed with and relied on the body of research set forth in our amicus brief in evaluating the constitutionality of life-without-parole sentences in homicide cases involving juveniles,” said APA General Counsel Nathalie Gilfoyle. “A consistent and growing body of social science and neuroscience research findings support the conclusion that juveniles are less culpable than adults, and are entitled to different treatment in sentencing in light of their immaturity, vulnerability and changeability.”

This was the third case involving juvenile sentencing in which the court has relied on social science research as the basis to limit sentencing of juveniles. The earlier two decisions found unconstitutional the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles and life-without-parole sentences in nonhomicide cases.

In her opinion for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan cited APA’s brief in concluding that developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds, noting that the social science supporting this conclusion has become even stronger since the court last visited the question of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in nonhomicide cases.

APA’s brief in the cases Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which were combined by the court, noted that the best available research indicates that even serious juvenile offenders are highly unlikely to continue to commit crimes as they mature. The APA brief presented research in developmental psychology and neuroscience that addressed three areas that demonstrate juveniles’ diminished culpability: 1) immaturity (i.e., that juveniles have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, which can result in ill-considered actions and decisions); 2) vulnerability (that juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure); and, 3) changeability (that the character of juveniles is not as well-formed as that of an adult, thereby giving juveniles greater potential for rehabilitation). APA also advised the court of emerging neuropsychological research that demonstrates the extended period over which the adolescent brain reaches maturity. 

The expert team of psychologists who assisted in the development of APA’s amicus brief in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs included Elizabeth Cauffman, Thomas Grisso, Terrie Moffitt, Laurence Steinberg and Jennifer Woolard.

The APA brief can be found online (PDF, 156KB).

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 137,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.