States Weigh Actions on Life without Parole for Young Crimes

The landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons banned capital punishment for juveniles as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. At the time, 12 states banned capital punishment in all cases, and 18 more prohibited it for juveniles, while 72 juveniles were on Death Row in 12 states.

In 2010, the high court in Graham v. Florida further restricted juvenile sentencing, by banning life without parole sentences for defendants younger than 18 who had not been convicted of homicide. Then in its 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, the Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, holding both states and the federal government must consider each defendant’s unique circumstances. Finally, in 2016, the high court’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana applied the Graham decision retroactively.

Now, approaching three years later, states that allowed juveniles of life without parole are still grappling with revising their laws, holding new hearings, or otherwise dealing with inmates who may already have grown old serving time for crimes committed when they were very young.

The area has long been rife with confusion. Since Miller, over two dozen states and the District of Columbia amended their juvenile sentencing laws convicted of homicide. Most of these jurisdictions had previously required life without parole. New mandatory minimum sentences ran the gamut from 15 years in some states to 40 years in others.

After Miller banned mandatory life without parole for defendants under age 18, and before Montgomery settled the matter, states split on whether the earlier decision took effect retroactively. Fourteen states decided, correctly, that it did, but seven other states decided, wrongly, that it didn’t.

After Montgomery, states which once or still allowed mandatory juvenile life sentences without parole had several options: hold re-sentencing hearings for the roughly 2,100 defendants with such sentences, provide parole hearings, or take other actions (such as commutations or clemency). The states’ choices have been varied, and the results mixed.

Although nearly 30 states still permit life sentences with parole as a juvenile sentencing possibility, two-thirds of such sentences have been handed down in just three states: Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Louisiana, the state is considering about 300 inmates’ juvenile sentences. Of the 45 processed by a parole committee through 2018, 37 had been cleared for release and 31 are already out. Prosecutors there are asking or new life sentences for another 80 prisoners.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections says about 400 of over 500 inmates with life sentences for juvenile crimes have thus far received new sentences, with 163 of them released. Michigan has resentenced over 140 inmates, freeing about half of them; prosecutors are seeking new life-without-parole sentences or another 200 or so, though judges have declined in some cases.

Some governors are releasing inmates convicted as juveniles. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper recently freed an inmate who had served 24 years for a carjacking he took part in as a homeless 15-year-old. Lame-duck Tennessee governor Bill Haslam freed a woman who’s spent 14 years imprisoned after shooting a customer as a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim. Under state law, she wouldn’t have been eligible for parole until she’d served 51 years.

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