Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law Reacts to Today’s U.S. Supreme Court Decision

U.S. Supreme Court Takes Important – But Insufficient – Step to Adhere to Human Rights Obligations by Banning Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

CONTACT: Lauren Bartlett, director, Local Human Rights Lawyering Project, American University Washington College of Law, (202) 895-4556


WASHINGTON, D.C., June 25, 2012— The U.S. took a small step toward implementing its international human rights law obligations today when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that no child can be sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment.

“The Miller v. Alabama decision today moved us a step closer to our obligations under international human rights law and in instituting a complete ban but it does not go far enough,” said Lauren E. Bartlett, director of the Local Human Rights Lawyering Project at the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. “But we are disappointed that the Court did not prohibit the life without parole sentence for all children and all crimes.”

Today’s decision is the latest in a range of decisions, including the 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision (overturning the juvenile death penalty) and the 2010 Graham v. Florida case (overturning the use of juvenile life without parole for non-homicide offenses), recognizing that children are different and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to the harshest punishments – principles which have been acknowledged and promoted under international law.

As urged in an amicus brief filed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others, the U.S. is obligated under its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and its signature of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children against cruel and inhuman punishment or treatment. The international human rights legal framework, including international treaties and international norms, places a duty on the federal, state and local governments here in the U.S. to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all people, including children. While Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, focused the Court’s decision on the 8th Amendment arguments against cruel and unusual punishment, the Court did not overturn the use of juvenile life without parole in all cases – only the mandatory imposition of life without parole.

“The U.S. is the only country left in the world to sentence children to life without parole for offenses they committed before age 18,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. “The Supreme Court’s decision today was important because it brought U.S. law closer in line with one of the most widely accepted international human rights norms—the prohibition on juvenile life without parole—but we had hoped that the Supreme Court would fully align U.S. law with international human rights law and ban it completely.”

The Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law will be holding a briefing on “Human Rights Implications of SCOTUS Decisions in the 2012 Term” on Wednesday, July 18, 2012. The session will focus on how U.S. Supreme Court decisions on immigration, health care, juvenile life without parole impact the U.S. obligation under human rights treaty obligations.


The American University Washington College of Law Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law Program on Human Rights in the U.S. works to implement human rights norms on a national, state and local level in the United States. Its Local Human Rights Lawyering Project works with legal aid attorneys to integrate human rights in their daily work. The Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law was established in 1990 to provide scholarship and support for human rights initiatives in the U.S. and around the world. The Center works with students, academics and practitioners to enhance the understanding and implementation of human rights and humanitarian law domestically, regionally and internationally. The Center explores emerging intersections in the law and seeks to create new tools and strategies for the creative advancement of international norms.

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