Skip to content


By: Alina Yasis, Volume 104 Staff Member

In the past few decades, advances in psychology and neuroscience have provided us with empirical data supporting the commonsense notion that the brain of a child or adolescent differs significantly from an adult brain.[1] Since the landmark decisions of Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana, our legal system has digested this reality and put forth new sentencing guidelines for juveniles.[2] No longer is it constitutional to sentence a juvenile who commits a heinous crime to life in prison without parole (LWOP). However, despite a clear signal from the Supreme Court that sentencing a juvenile offender to “death by prison”[3] is unconstitutionally excessive, neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has weighed in on “de facto” LWOP cases. [4] In those cases, a juvenile offender’s sentence practically “equates to . . . spending the rest of their life in prison without the possibility of parole,”[5] but is not technically labeled as such.[6]

In the wake of Miller and Montgomery, Minnesota has upheld de facto LWOP sentences for juveniles convicted of particularly heinous crimes,[7] meaning that Minnesota courts may constitutionally sentence a juvenile offender to consecutive life sentences—each with a possibility of release—that functionally operate as life imprisonment without parole.[8]


In 2009, a jury found Brian Lee Flowers guilty of intentionally aiding[9] an accomplice to commit the crime of intentional first-degree murder.[10] He was 16 years old when he committed the crime. Pursuant to Minnesota’s first-degree murder statute, the court sentenced him to two mandatory life terms without parole.[11]

Before 2012, there was no requirement that the court take Flowers’ age into account during his sentencing. That changed in Miller v. Alabama, where the United States Supreme Court held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders”[12] and categorically banned mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders.[13] The Court stressed “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change,”[14] reasoning that adults and juveniles should not be treated equally in sentencing, and ultimately, that juveniles should be punished less harshly for crimes committed during childhood.[15] Miller advanced the principle that courts should take into consideration, and in some cases weigh heavily, a child’s age at the time they committed the crime and the fact that children are especially vulnerable to negative influences.[16] Four years later in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that Miller must be applied retroactively,[17] giving juvenile lifers “the opportunity to prove they have been rehabilitated and deserve a chance to be granted parole”.[18]

But courts have struggled to interpret Miller and Montgomery uniformly, resulting in a circuit split. If you are a juvenile offender in the Third, Seventh, Ninth, or Tenth Circuits, you will not receive a de facto LWOP sentence.[19] Courts in those circuits have taken a more purposivist approach and interpreted Miller to mean that juvenile offenders, regardless of the heinousness of their crimes, should be able to return to society once they’ve matured neurologically and proven their rehabilitation.[20] If you commit that same crime in the Eighth Circuit, the court will have the discretion to impose a sentence that is functionally equivalent to “death by prison”.[21] The Eighth Circuit reasoned that because the Miller’s categorical ban on juvenile LWOP sentences did not explicitly include de facto life sentences, sentences functionally equivalent to life in prison are not unconstitutional.[22]

The Minnesota Supreme Court had a chance to address Minnesota statutes that permit sentencing juvenile offenders to LWOP. It held that sentences imposing a juvenile LWOP sentence are unconstitutional without additional findings in a Miller hearing,[23] but consecutive sentences involving parole eligibility are constitutional, even if they result in a de facto sentence of life without the possibility of parole.[24]

Consequently, to conform to Miller’s ban on juvenile LWOP sentences, Brian Lee Flowers was resentenced. His original sentence of two mandatory consecutive terms of life without parole was changed to two concurrent 30 to life sentences.[25] In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the concurrent sentences and remanded Flowers’ case back to the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing.[26] Because that hearing has not yet been held, currently, in essence, Flowers does not have a sentence.


Current Minnesota statutes contain unconstitutional language that mandates LWOP sentences for juveniles.[27] Thus, in order to comply with Miller and Montgomery, the Minnesota Supreme Court revived an older law[28] to apply to juveniles who commit heinous crimes, essentially solely doing away with mandatory LWOP for them.[29] But Minnesota courts have declined to find de facto life sentences unconstitutional, and Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Minnesota legislature have all remained silent on how to handle juvenile offenders who killed multiple victims and are serving more than one life sentence.[30]

Minnesota should join Washington D.C. and the twenty-two other states that have banned juvenile LWOP sentences[31] and enact legislation prohibiting de facto life sentences for three reasons. First, “sentences that close the door on rehabilitation and second chances are cruel and misguided,”[32] especially in light of the modern understanding of the adolescent brain. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” and “because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”[33] This correctly encompasses a modern scientific understanding of the brain.[34]

Second, even apart from significant justice concerns, the financial cost of keeping a juvenile offender in prison for their entire life is significant. According to one estimate, “a 50-year sentence for a 16-year-old will cost approximately $2.25 million.”[35] These types of cases are rare in Minnesota,[36] so giving juvenile offenders a chance to prove they have been rehabilitated after a period of time would not result in an overwhelming number of resentencing hearings, and it would certainly be cheaper than imprisoning them for life.

Third, if the court decides that adequate rehabilitation has not occurred during the juvenile offender’s years in prison, there is always the option that the individual remain in prison. Thus, the public’s safety would not be compromised if the Minnesota legislature changes the laws on the books to align with Miller.

At least one bill has been proposed clarifying the Minnesota legislature’s position on de facto life sentences.[37] And it deserves more serious attention. Given the purpose behind the Miller decision—to prohibit juvenile offenders from spending their entire lives in prison without a second chance because that punishment is excessive and unconstitutional—it is inappropriate that Minnesota courts have “eliminate[d] life sentences in name only” and “replace[d] them with excessively lengthy prison terms that can reasonably expected to last for an offender’s entire life.”[38]


In 2012, the Supreme Court decided that it is unconstitutional for our legal system to impose a sentence in which a juvenile offender spends their life in prison, no matter the circumstances or the heinousness of the crime. Current Minnesota law is not consistent with this, and the Minnesota legislature should enact legislation clarifying that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional, including sentences that functionally equate to life in prison without parole.

[1] See Laurence Steinberg & Grace Icenogle, Using Developmental Science to Distinguish Adolescents and Adults Under the Law, 1 Ann. Rev. of Developmental Psychol. 21 (2019) (concluding “that the maturation of the capacity to reason and deliberate systematically precedes, by as much as five years, the maturation of the ability to exercise self-regulation, especially in socially and emotionally arousing contexts.”); see also Natasha Duell et al., Adolescent Decision Making and Risk Taking, in Child Psychology: A Handbook of Contemporary Issues (2016) (describing the age-crime curve, which refers to a pattern of risk-taking that peaks during the mid- or late adolescent years and declines in adulthood) .

[2] See generally Jennifer L. Piel, Term-of-Years Sentences Since Miller v. Alabama, 48 J. Amer. Acad. Psychiatry and the L. Online 98 (2020), [] (discussing the divergent ways that states have responded to Miller).

[3] Ross Kleinstuber et al., Into the Abyss: The Unintended Consequences of Death Penalty Abolition, 19 U. Penn. J. L. & Soc. Change 185, 195 (2016).

[4] See Megan Pollastro, Where Are You, Congress?: Silence Rings in Congress As Juvenile Offenders Remain in Prison For Life, 85 Brooklyn L. Rev. 287, 289 (noting that the Supreme Court “has failed to establish a clear and consistent rule for de facto LWOP cases.”).

[5] Julian Zhu, Know More: De Facto Life Sentences, Restore Just., [].

[6] By contrast, a traditional life sentence requires the defendant to remain in prison either for the rest of their natural life or until paroled after 30 years. Minn. Stat. Ann. §244.05 (West).

[7] Mike Cook, Should Life Without Parole Be A Sentence For the Most Heinous Juvenile Offenders?, Minn. Legis. (Feb.28, 2018, 4:59 PM), [].

[8] State v. Ali, 895 N.W.2d 237, 246 (Minn. 2017) (“[T]he issue of whether consecutive sentences should be viewed separately when conducting a proportionality analysis under the Eighth Amendment remains an open question.”). However, after Jackson v. State, 883 N.W.2d 272, 279 (Minn. 2016), Minnesota courts have declined to sentence juvenile offenders to de facto LWOP.

[9] Minn. Stat. § 609.05, subd. 1.

[10] State v. Flowers, 788 N.W.2d 120, 122 (Minn. 2010).

[11] Minn. Stat. Ann. § 609.106 (West).

[12] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Anna K. Christensen, Note, Rehabilitating Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Analysis of Miller v. Alabama, 4 Cal. L. Rev. Cir. 132, 134 (2013); Pollastro, supra note 4 at 287–88.

[17] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 734 (2016).

[18] Pollastro, supra note 4 at 289 (discussing the circuit split regarding de facto LWOP sentences).

[19] See id.

[20] See, e.g., United States v. Grant, 905 F.3d 285 (3d Cir. 2018); Budder v. Addison, 851 F.3d 1047, 1059–60 (10th Cir. 2017); McKinley v. Butler, 809 F.3d 908, 914 (7th Cir. 2016); Moore v. Biter, 725 F.3d 1184, 1188, 1192 (9th Cir. 2013).

[21] See United States v. Jefferson, 816 F.3d 1016, 1019 (8th Cir. 2016) (deciding that a juvenile offender’s sentence of 600 additional months was not unconstitutional).

[22] Id.

[23] Jackson v. State, 883 N.W.2d 272, 282 (Minn. 2016) (holding that Minnesota statutes mandating life imprisonment without parole “severed as applied to . . . any juvenile offenders who received mandatory LWO[P] sentences that were final before the Miller rule was announced.”). The most recent constitutional versions of those statutes, allowing for possible release after 30 years, are revived. Id.

[24] In State v. Ali, the defendant, who shot and killed three men when he was 16 years old, was not given the opportunity to be paroled after 30 years (as would be the case with a traditional life sentence). Instead, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld his sentence of three consecutive life imprisonment sentences with the possibility of release. See State v. Ali I(2014) and State v. Ali II (2017). This equates to 90 years imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

[25] Flowers v. State, 907 N.W.2d 901, 906 (Minn. 2018).

[26] Id.

[27] A juvenile convicted of first-degree murder, for example, must receive a sentence of life without release. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. Ann. § 609.106 (West).

[28] Minn. Stat. Ann. § 244.05 subd. 4 (stating that “[a]n inmate serving a mandatory life sentence [for specific heinous crimes] . . . must not be given supervised release under this section without having served a minimum term of 30 years.”).

[29] See e.g., Flowers, 907 N.W.2d at 906 (giving defendant two consecutive life terms with possibility of parole, instead of the mandatory LWOP sentence pursuant to Minn. Stat. §609.106).

[30] Id. (“[A]bsent further guidance from the United States Supreme Court, we will not extend the Miller/Montgomery rule to multiple consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years.”).

[31] RJ Vogt, DC Sniper Case Stokes Debate Over Juvenile Life Sentences, Law 360 (Oct. 6, 2019, 8:02 PM),[] (map depicting which states have banned juvenile LWOP sentences).

[32]Josh Rovner, Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, Sentencing Project (Feb. 25, 2020), [].

[33] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 461 (2012).

[34] See id. (discussing three significant gaps between juveniles and adults, including maturity level, vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, and what their actions say about their character in terms of “irretrievable depravity”).

[35] Rovner, supra note 30.

[36] When Miller was decided, there were eight juvenile lifers serving their sentences in Minnesota. See Mike Cook, Should Life Without Parole Be A Sentence For the Most Heinous Juvenile Offenders?, Minn. Legis. (Feb. 28, 2018, 4:59 PM), [].

[37] H.F. 1717, 91st Leg., Reg. Sess. (Minn. 2019). The proposal “establishes that an offender who commits an offense as a juvenile and is sentenced to life imprisonment must be made eligible for parole after serving 25 years.” Id.

[38] Rovner, supra note 30.