NC Supreme Court Imposes Limits on Severe Punishment for Youth

Last week, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued two important decisions concerning the way our state imposes prison time on people who committed crimes when they were children.

In State v. Kelliher and State v. Conner, the Court reiterated that children are different than adults and that the North Carolina Constitution imposes “limits on the use of our most severe punishments for juvenile offenders, even for those children who have committed the most egregious crimes imaginable.”

The Court noted “the United States is the only country in the world that imposes juvenile life without parole sentences; such sentences are banned in every other country and prohibited by human rights treaties,” citing to Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina, 110 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 141 (2020), authored by Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law faculty and researchers Ben Finholt, Brandon Garrett, Karima Modjadidi, and Kristen M. Renberg. 

These decisions by our highest court follow decisions from the United States Supreme Court that outlawed the use of the death penalty on children (Roper v. Simmons), the imposition of life without parole (LWOP) on children not convicted of homicide (Graham v. Florida), and the mandatory imposition of LWOP of children convicted of homicide (Miller v. Alabama). Given those precedents, the North Carolina court made several important holdings under the North Carolina Constitution:

  1. The North Carolina “cruel or unusual” clause in Article I, section 27 of our state constitution is substantively different than the federal “cruel and unusual” clause in the 8th Amendment, and North Carolina courts are not limited by federal court interpretations of “cruel and unusual.”
  2. Even if a sentence for a child does not carry the official label of LWOP, a juvenile sentence may be so long that it is a “de facto” LWOP sentence that must conform with Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama.
  3. A sentence can count as de facto JLWOP even if the total term of imprisonment comes from multiple consecutive sentences. The total time in prison is what matters, not the length of each individual sentence.
  4. Any sentence that requires a child to serve more than 40 years is de facto LWOP and is therefore unconstitutional under the North Carolina Constitution.

“The rulings by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Kelliher and Conner are an important step forward for our state,” said Ben Finholt, Director of the Just Sentencing Project at the Wilson Center. “The Court has given children hope that their efforts to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation will be recognized, and are based on decades-old brain science that affirmed what all parents know: that children change rapidly throughout adolescence and should not be discarded.”