States Dodge Supreme Court Ruling Against Life Sentences for Minors

Sunday, August 05, 2012
Although the Supreme Court in June ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence someone convicted of homicide to life without the possibility of parole if the defendant committed the crime as a juvenile, the response of several states seems to be making a mockery of that decision.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (Republican), for example, announced he would commute the life without parole sentences of 38 juvenile offenders and make them eligible for parole after 60 years, effectively preventing them from getting new sentencing hearings that might have yielded even greater reductions in their sentences. Alabama and several other states have announced that they do not plan to change anyone’s sentence, period. For most Americans, and especially for convicts, 60 years in prison is equivalent to a life term.
In the June case, Miller v. Alabama, the High Court ruled that when sentencing a juvenile convicted of homicide, “mandatory life without parole … violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ and that a ‘judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.’” The decision follows a recent line of Supreme Court cases holding that minors, because of their youth and immature brains, are different from adults in that they have a lesser capacity to make careful decisions and a greater capacity for rehabilitation. In 2005, the Court struck down the death penalty for those under 18 and in 2010 it forbade life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.
For many of the approximately 2,600 convicts currently serving life without parole sentences imposed for crimes committed while they were minors, the Miller case seemed to promise at least the possibility of a new sentencing hearing, at which they could present evidence in support of a lesser sentence. Three aspects of the High Court’s ruling, however, seem to give the states the wiggle room they need to avoid such hearings in many cases.
First, the opinion did not state whether it applies retroactively or not. As a general matter of law, court decisions have the force of law going forward in time, but they do not affect matters that were litigated in the past. However, in some cases where important constitutional rights are involved, the High Court may decide that a ruling will apply retroactively, which allows new hearings or trials for those whose situations would be altered under the new ruling. Because the opinion in Miller did not address past cases, individual prisoners will have to bring cases to court arguing that it should apply retroactively, and the courts, including eventually the Supreme Court, will have to decide that issue. That process will take years.
Second, the opinion struck down only mandatory life without parole sentences. Convicts who were sentenced to life without parole after an individualized sentencing hearing where they were able to present mitigating evidence will not be able to challenge their sentences, unless they are able to argue that their hearing was defective in some way. That will be a very difficult matter to prove.
Third, the Court has previously ruled in other cases that the constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases does not apply when a prisoner is challenging his or her sentence, unless it is a sentence of death. Thus convicts seeking to challenge their life without parole sentences will have to pay an attorney themselves or rely on free legal services, which are stretched thin and hard to get.
The bottom line appears to be that, despite the High Court’s ruling that mandatory life without parole sentences for crimes other than murder committed by juveniles constitute “cruel and unusual punishments,” many of those covered by the ruling will face a long, hard and uncertain fight in order to gain the practical benefits of their Eighth Amendments rights.
-Matt Bewig
Justices Bar Mandatory Life Terms for Juveniles (by Adam Liptak and Ethan Bronner, New York Times)
Juvenile Life Without Parole (Juvenile Law Center)

Miller v. Alabama (Supreme Court, 2012) (pdf) 


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