October 1, 2022

Study: Juvenile Life Sentences on the decline

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Closed jail cells in a famous penitentiary

Closed jail cells in a famous penitentiary

By Tony Mauro, From The National Law Journal

Fewer juveniles are being sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to a new study by a public interest law firm that is advocating for an end to the practice altogether.

“Only a handful of counties and states are responsible for nearly all [juvenile life without parole] sentences,” the Phillips Black Project concluded in its report. “Youth of color are gravely overrepresented in the [juvenile life without parole] population, raising questions about the rationality of the punishment.”

The study was released with an eye toward the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration on Tuesday of a case that involves such sentences, Montgomery v. Louisiana.

“We thought our findings could be relevant to the Supreme Court,” said John Mills, lead author of the report. “The disparities were startling.” Mills is a principal attorney at Phillips Black, a group of independent practitioners who represent death row inmates and conduct training and research on criminal justice issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole-sentences for those who committed their crime as juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment. But the court did not say that such sentences are unconstitutional when they are optional and judges can take individual factors into consideration.

Read more: New Look at Juvenile Sentencing

The high court will hear arguments on Oct. 13 in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which asks whether the rule in Miller should apply retroactively to cases in which the conviction and sentence are final but the defendant is seeking review. The plaintiff is Henry Montgomery, convicted in the 1963 murder of a deputy sheriff in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Montgomery was 17 at the time.

One brief in Montgomery, filed by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, urges that the high court use the case to ban all juvenile sentences of life without parole as “the most straightforward way to resolve this case.” Jacobs v. Louisiana, another case pending before the high court, directly asks, “Does the Eighth Amendment prohibit sentencing a child to life without possibility of parole?”

The Phillips Black study also suggests that a national consensus disapproving the sentences has formed, making it appropriate for the Supreme Court to consider abolishing it. “The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to declare juvenile life without parole a cruel and unusual punishment, far outside our standards of decency in the twenty-first century,” the report said.

Nine states have abolished life-without-parole sentences for juveniles since the Miller decision, bringing the number to 15, according to the report. California and Florida have sharply limited its use and other states have eliminated its use for certain categories of crimes.

Tallying all such sentences between 1953 and 2015, the study found that nine states—California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania—are responsible for 82 percent of all juvenile life-without-parole sentences.

Most of these sentences were handed down during the “moral panic” in the 1990s about violent young people and “the unfounded prediction of a new class of super-predators that never actually materialized,” the report asserts. The number of these sentences peaked in the early 1990s at more than 100 per year, and dropped to fewer than 10 annually since 2013.

Since 1992, black juveniles were twice as likely as whites to be given life-without-parole sentences, according to the study. All of the juveniles sentenced to life in Texas are black, according to the report.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in a brief in the Montgomery case defends life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, especially because the high court has ruled out the death penalty for those who murdered as juveniles.

“Nothing can bring back the deceased victim, but the knowledge that the perpetrator of the atrocity will not escape just punishment does provide a sense of relief,” the foundation brief said. “Perfect certainty is achievable only with an executed death sentence, but a sentence of life without parole is as close as we can come now with under-18 murderers, and when this court barred the death penalty in such cases it implicitly promised that this finality would be available.”

The Phillips Black firm was created in 2014 and is named for Samuel Phillips, who was U.S. solicitor general during Reconstruction and later represented Homer Plessy in Plessy v. Ferguson, and the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black.

Photo by Tracy King/iStock

For more on this story go to: http://www.nationallawjournal.com/id=1202739538750/Study-Juvenile-Life-Sentences-on-the-Decline#ixzz3oSbocQqj


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