In a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings dating back to 2005 (discussed below), the Court has placed increasing restrictions on the use of harsh penalties for crimes committed by juveniles younger than 18. These rulings reflect the Court's position that "children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing." (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).)
The Supreme Court outlawed the use of capital punishment (death penalty) and mandatory life sentences without parole for crimes committed by juveniles, holding that these penalties violated the Eighth Amendment. These rulings left discretionary life without parole as the harshest juvenile sentencing option.
Due to the Supreme Court rulings, some states were required to change their juvenile sentencing laws or practices. But other states—like Ohio—chose to amend their laws and provide juveniles even more protections than those required under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Laws in nearly half the states now prohibit juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) entirely—mandatory or discretionary.
In January 2021, Ohio became the 24th state to prohibit all JLWOP sentences. (S.B. 256.) Ohio's new law takes effect on April 1, 2021, and applies to sentences imposed on or after that date. You can find a complete list of states that prohibit JLWOP at the Sentencing Project.
Here's a look at the Supreme Court's progression on juvenile sentencing under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
2005: The Supreme Court bans the death sentence for juveniles. (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).)
2010: The Court next looked at life without parole sentences for juveniles (JLWOP), the next harshest sentence available after capital punishment. The Court decided JLWOP could only be imposed in homicide cases and not in nonhomicide cases, such as rape or aggravated robbery. (Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010).)
2012: Two years later, the Court evaluated the use of mandatory JLWOP sentencing. The justices ruled that mandatory JLWOP was unconstitutional, pointing out that, when compared to adults, youth are less mature and will likely spend a greater percentage of their life behind bars. The Court held that judges must have the discretion (ability) to consider the juvenile's age, maturity, upbringing, and other factors before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole. (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).)
2016: In 2016, the Supreme Court found that JLWOP must be reserved for only "the rarest of juveniles, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility." (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).)