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12 Jul 2014

Justice Denied: Most states have not obeyed court ruling on juveniles sentenced to life

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July 12, 2014 Category: Week In Review Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  A prison cell is home for life for many Black men who were convicted of murder as teenagers. 



Overwhelming majority of juvenile lifers are African American; some states exceed 80 percent

By Frederick H. Lowe

 Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 28 states cannot automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison for murder without the chance of parole, a decision that affected mostly imprisoned black boys, only 13 states have changed their laws to comply with the ruling, but 15 states have not passed any statutory reforms, according to a study by The Sentencing Project, which works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system.

The justices’ decision and some states’ response to it is a clear indication that states will respond quickly to some of the court rulings but not to others.

For example, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, some state legislatures quickly moved to erect barriers to voting by African Americans. Fifteen states have passed laws making it more difficult to vote in the November midterm elections and in six states, groups are challenging the laws.

Following the case of Miller v Alabama, some states’ governors and legislatures increased the minimum time that a person who was sentenced to prison as a juvenile must serve before being considered for parole.

A juvenile who was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he committed before his 18th birthday must serve 25 years in Washington and North Carolina and 40 years in Nebraska. The reluctance or the refusal of states to enact laws to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision also underscores how difficult it is to enact and pass certain laws.  

“A majority of the states have ignored the court ‘s ruling and relief has not been granted as advocacy groups expected,” said Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., senior research analyst  for The Sentencing Project and author of the report “Slow To Act: State Responses to 2012 Supreme Court Mandate On Life Without Parole.” The Sentencing Project is based in Washington, D.C.

On June 25, 2012, in the case titled Miller v Alabama the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of mandatory life sentences without parole for teenagers who committed murder. In their decision, the justices noted that juveniles have a proclivity for risk and impulsivity and the relative inability to assess consequences, all factors that should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile defendants.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, however, that states could impose life without parole but only after a judge considered each individual case’s circumstances.

At the time of the court’s ruling, Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, New Mexico and the District of Columbia had banned life without parole for juveniles.  

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming have made legislative changes, according to  The Sentencing Project, have banned life without parole sentencing for juvenile offenders.

On the other hand, Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont and Virginia have not passed laws that comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.

Others have skirted the law altogether

Following Miller v Alabama ruling, Iowa Gov. Terry Bransted commuted all of the sentences of juveniles serving life without parole to a minimum of 60 years, leaving their status unchanged, according to the Sentencing Project.

“Justice is a balance and these commutations ensure that justice is balanced with punishment for those vicious crimes and taking into account public safety,” Bransted said in announcing his order.

States’ response to Miller v Alabama is mixed in other ways. State Supreme Courts in Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska and Texas ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court decision is retroactive. Supreme Courts in Louisiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania ruled just the opposite. In May, however, a federal court in Minnesota ruled that Miller v Alabama was retroactive.

The majority of the 2,500 men and women who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole are African Americans, according to The Sentencing Project.

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