Update: states start to respond to the ban on mandatory life sentences for killer kids

I’ve written previously about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama striking down mandatory life sentences without parole for killers who were juveniles at the time of their crime. Wyoming has now enacted a law giving convicted killers who were under 18 at the time the chance for parole after serving 25 years, or if their sentence is commuted. Life without parole is still an optional sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder if a judge determines such a sentence is appropriate after a special hearing addressing maturity, juvenile record, and prospects for rehabilitiation. But LWOP can no longer be mandated by sentencing laws.

A 16 y.o. Wyoming man convicted of murder after the Miller decision was sentenced to LWOP and appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which threw out the sentence. The Legislature then adopted this change, which is not retroactive–eight juveniles sentenced to LWOP under the former law still have no right to parole.

As a Wyoming lawyer affiliated with the ACLU says, most states have not yet responded to the Miller ruling. Whether by judicial decision or legislative action, we will be seeing more similar changes in the years to come.  (Post based on reporting from the Billings Gazette.)

(Illustration: “In the Clearwater Valley,” pastel on suedeboard, by me.)

Sentencing juvenile killers — the Supreme Court rules

Last March, I discussed the case pending before the Supreme Court challenging state statutes mandating life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

Earlier this week, in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court held 5 to 4 that the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and usual punishment bars mandatory life sentences for homicide offenders under 18 at the time of their crime. Both defendants were 14. The decision builds on earlier cases holding that because young offenders lack the maturity and judgment of adults–and have greater capacity for rehabilitation–they should not necessarily receive the same punishment. (Books, Crooks & Counselors discusses the first case, Roper v. Simmons (2005), striking down the death penalty for juveniles.)

I want to stress that this ruling does not mean no juvenile can be given a life sentence without parole or LWOP, as it’s sometimes called. It holds only that a state may not make such sentences mandatory.

Instead, sentencing must take into account mitigating factors (discussed in Books, Crooks & Counselors), such as age, personal history, immaturity, or duress.

Judges tend to dislike mandatory sentences, because they take away judicial discretion to consider factors unique to the case or defendant. This ruling assures that sentences are tailored to the particular facts of the case, including both the crime and the defendant.

For further details, see the analysis in the SCOTUS blog and this Washington Post report.

How can you use this in your stories? Consider the family of your juvenile offender–or the family of his victim. Play out the debate in real time, or after the crime–look to the dissents for fodder. Create tension in the prosecutor’s office–or the defenders. How does the case hit home for the lawyers, judge, or jurors–who may have teenagers of their own? Bring in racial and socio-economic factors. What about public reaction?

And if you’re looking for a model of a passionate, driven defense attorney, consider Bryan Stevenson, profiled in this Washington Post story. Stevenson has long represented young offenders sentenced to death or LWAP, and led the fight for Miller and Jackson–even though when he was 16, his own grandfather was murdered by four teenagers in Philadelphia.

Update to the update: FOB (Friend of the Blog) Hank Phillippi Ryan sent me this Boston newspaper interview with prosecutors and defense counsel, including her husband Jonathan Shapiro, about the impact of the decision.  Shapiro represented a teenager sentenced to LWAP for murder; his sentence will now be revisited.

Life without parole for young killers?

In real life and in fiction, young people commit serious crimes. In late March, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether juveniles–14 year-olds, in these two cases–can be sentenced to life without parole for murder. The SCOTUS blog–always a great source–provides a roundup of coverage and a detailed report on the arguments.

The cases ask whether a state should be able to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole on juveniles, e.g., those under 18 at the time of their crime. Should it be optional? Barred entirely? Or barred only for very young offenders, e.g., 14 and under?

The cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, are the third in recent years asking what limits should be put on sentences for juveniles.

As I discussed in Books, Crooks & Counselors, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed before 18. It held that the death penalty for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and is “disproportionate” in light of the general immaturity of youth. It acknowledged that some juveniles commit brutal crimes, but wrote that their

“susceptibility … to immature and irresponsible behavior means their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult. … From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

The majority also concluded that juvenile executions do not serve the goals of retribution or deterrence.

And in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for crimes not involving murder, and that inmates already under such a sentence must be given an opportunity to show grounds for early release. 

Something for your fictional prosecutors, defense lawyers, and other characters to consider.

I’m in Oregon this week for Don Maass’s Breakout Novel workshop. Wow. My characters may never recover–and that’s a good thing!