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

Chart on juveniles sentenced without parole

Chart on juveniles sentenced without parole

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

By Frederick H. Lowe
Special to the Trice Edney Newswire from

Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 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. Fifteen 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 Sentencing Project is based in Washington, D.C.

The justices’ decision and some states’ response to it is a clear indication states will respond quickly to some of the court’s 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 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.

On June 25, 2012, in 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 juveniles have a proclivity for risk and impulsivity and the relative inability to assess consequences — all factors that should mitigate thepunishment 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, banning ife without parole sentencing for juvenile offenders, according to  The Sentencing Project.

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 the 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’ responses to Miller v. Alabama is mixed in other ways. State supreme courts in Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska and Texas ruled 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 Miller v. Alabama was retroactive.

Approximately 350 once-juveniles convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole await a Michigan Supreme Court decision that could lead to their freedom. On March 6, the Michigan Supreme Court heard three cases that consider among other things, potential retroactivity in Miller v. Alabama. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette argued against allowing the convicted persons — some of whom did not deliver death blows, but were instead “accessories” — a chance to argue for a future release.

In a letter to the Michigan Citizen, James D. Thomas, a juvenile lifer at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Mich., writes: “Juveniles and their supporters (agree) that juveniles should be held accountable for their actions. As mature men and women who have committed serious crimes  at the ages of 14 and 15 years old, we understand there is no amount of time that can repair the damage we caused by participating in the death of another human being.”

However, in spite of the fact that many juvenile lifers have been systematically excluded from prison rehabilitative programs, Thomas says, many of them have matured and changed over decades of incarceration.

“The cornerstone of America is giving second chances,” says Thomas. “Who better to give a second chance than a juvenile who has spent 20 years of his/her life in prison for a crime that was committed when they were 14 and 15 years old and have proven that they can be safely released back into society?”

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


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