Considering Child Trauma Issues in Juvenile Court Sentencing
By Gene Griffin and Sarah Sallen*
Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several major decisions regarding the
sentencing of juveniles. In each of these cases, Roper v. Simmons (2005),1 Graham v. Florida
(2010), 2 and Miller v. Alabama (2012), 3 the Court relied on neurological and social science
research in determining that juveniles are still developing and, due to their immaturity, are
capable of committing brutal crimes, but are less culpable than adults. 4 The Miller Court, in
striking down a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles, 5 went beyond research
pertaining to all juveniles and instructed courts to look at individual mitigating issues when
sentencing youth. Specifically, the Court noted several relevant factors, including the juvenile’s
history of family violence, parental substance abuse, child abuse, and mental health issues. 6
Though the Court never used the term “child trauma,” all of the personal events noted in the
opinion are, in fact, adverse childhood experiences that lead to child trauma.
This Article argues that in following Miller v. Alabama and recognizing the rehabilitative
purpose of the juvenile justice system, juvenile courts should consider child trauma as a factor in
sentencing. After reviewing the recent Supreme Court decisions in Part II, this Article, in Part III,
will describe “child trauma,” its prevalence in the juvenile justice system, and the impact child
trauma has on children’s development. Part IV will briefly review the history of other courts’
reliance on one type of trauma, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, for the purpose of demonstrating
that trauma is not a novel concept to the court system. Lastly, Part V will note how child trauma
might be relevant as both a mitigating and risk factor in sentencing, and describe how juvenile
courts might incorporate such information into trauma-informed sentencing.
II. OPENING THE DOOR FOR CONSIDERING CHILD TRAUMA: A REVIEW OF RECENT SUPREME
Within the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings acknowledging what
parents and individuals who work with children have known for years: that children are different
than adults. 7 Relying on child and adolescent brain development and social science research, the
landmark cases, Roper v. Simmons, 8 Graham v. Florida, 9 and Miller v. Alabama, 10 “emphasize
* Gene Griffin, J.D., Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Sarah Sallen, J.D. is a
Loyola Public Interest Law Fellow at The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.
1 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
2 Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).
3 Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).
4 See, e.g., Graham, 560 U.S. at 88 (“[O]ur cases acknowledging that juvenile offenders are generally—though not necessarily in
every case—less morally culpable than adults who commit the same crimes.”). “Accordingly, ‘juvenile offenders cannot with
reliability be classified among the worst offenders.’ A juvenile is not absolved of responsibility for his actions, but his transgression ‘is
not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.’” Id. at 68 (citation omitted).
5 Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2460.
6 Id. at 2468-69.
7 See, e.g., Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 569 (2005) (stating that “as any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological
studies . . . tend to confirm,” children are different than adults).
8 Id. at 551.
9 Graham, 560 U.S. 48.