States Reconsider Juvenile Life Sentences in Wake of Supreme Court Ruling
The Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder is unconstitutional. But the court left little guidance for states on what to do next.
By Maggie Clark, Stateline Staff Writer
Robert Holbrook is serving a life-without-parole sentence in Pennsylvania for participating in a robbery that escalated into murder on his 16th birthday. He agreed to serve as a lookout for what he thought would be a simple drug deal, his sister Anita Colón explained at a Pennsylvania Senate judiciary committee hearing earlier this month.
Instead, she said he found himself in the middle of a robbery-turned-murder and was too scared of the drug dealer and the four adults who ordered him to stay to run away. Holbrook pled guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty, and a judge convicted him of first-degree murder for aiding and abetting in the crime.
In her testimony at the recent hearing evaluating what impact the Miller v. Alabama U.S. Supreme Court decision (June 25) might have on similar cases, Colón recalled that the judge sentencing her brother 22 years ago said although he had been the least culpable of the offenders, the law did not permit discretion. He had no other option but to impose the mandatory sentence for first- and second-degree murder in Pennsylvania -- life without the possibility of parole.
That mandatory sentencing structure in Pennsylvania and 25 other states was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan made clear that any juvenile convicted of murder must receive an individual sentence that considers the offender’s age and circumstances, and that judges should be able to exercise some discretion when handing down sentences in juvenile murder cases.
The majority ruled that mandatory life without parole for all juvenile murderers violates the eighth amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision means that in 26 states, their only sentence for juvenile killers is unconstitutional. But that’s where the clarity stops.
The court did not specify whether the rule changes apply to the more than 2,500 juvenile life sentences already handed down, or what judges should do in the interim before the legislature can offer a new sentencing structure.
The fix could be as simple as changing a few words in an existing statute, since the ruling did not say that a life without parole is unconstitutional, just that it cannot be mandatory. But it will likely be years before the full effects of the decision are realized.
Is it retroactive?
For advocates like Colón, the decision is a ray of hope to the thousands of juvenile lifers, including her brother, that they could one day be eligible for parole. But determining whether the decision applies retroactively will be slowly worked out through litigation, case by case and court by court, says Michigan Judge Joseph Farah, who has handled juvenile murder cases in the past. Defense attorneys in Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan have already begun to file habeas corpus petitions for their clients, challenging the legality of their sentence and seeking a new one in light of Miller, and for cases currently making their way through the court, Miller claims will undoubtedly come up, Farah says.
Depending on the retroactivity decision, there could be thousands of appeals filed. Bryan Stevenson, the Alabama defense attorney who argued Miller before the Supreme Court says inmates who want to file a habeas petition may not be able to find a lawyer. “Most states don’t have a right-to-counsel to file a habeas petition,” Stevenson says, “and that problem will be amplified with all of these new cases. We’re concerned about not having people in the system who can handle these cases.”
But prosecutors, by and large, are set against reopening old cases. Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch, who submitted a brief in Miller on behalf of 19 states, emphasized that victims’ rights would be the first priority for determining how Michigan prosecutors would handle the decision.
“The majority (of the Supreme Court) may have lost sight of the effect of the ruling on the victim’s families,” Bursch says, “which had members of their family killed in the most brutal way possible…It’s horrifying for the families to think that there could be a parole hearing every five years for their family member’s killer.”
Rethinking past practices
Concerns for victims’ rights also drove the first political response to the Miller ruling. Just weeks after the decision, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad issued a blanket commutation to all 38 people serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were minors: They must now all serve 60 years before they become eligible for parole.
Branstad said his decision came from his concern that victims’ families could be subject to parole hearings for their family members’ killers following an Iowa court’s acceptance of appeals based on Miller from two inmates sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles. Branstad also plans to propose a 60-year minimum sentence for juvenile killers in next year’s legislative session, says Tim Albrecht, the governor’s communications director.
But the commutation decision drew quick criticism from juvenile advocates, law professors and Iowa news editorial boards. The Des Moines Register called it “commutation in reverse” and “a cheap way to score popularity points.”
Lourdes Rosado, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said that the commutation, “flies in the face,” of both the Miller and the 2010 Graham v. Florida decision, which both outline the need for a meaningful opportunity to review a juvenile’s sentence and consider any mitigating factors which might lessen culpability.
Albrecht acknowledged that the commutation decision has no effect on any Iowa inmate’s ability to file a habeas petition for review of their case in light of the Miller decision.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania and Michigan, which have the first- and second-highest number of juvenile lifers, legislators have initiated hearings on how the Miller decision might best be addressed in their states’ sentencing codes.
Pennsylvania Senator Stewart Greenleaf, who sponsored the Senate judiciary committee hearing, is hopeful that the Supreme Court decision will encourage legislators to “inject some fairness” into the sentencing of youth and give judges more discretion rather than mandating a life sentence.
Greenleaf introduced legislation in 2008 to change the way the state dealt with juveniles convicted of murder, like Robert Holbrook, but the bill did not gain much support. Now, Greenleaf predicts that when the legislature comes back in September, they will “absolutely” be amendable to changing the statute.
In light of the complexity of these cases, Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, says that states should take this opportunity to be thoughtful and deliberative about changing their statutes, and not rush to fill the void left by Miller.
“These quick fixes (like the Branstad commutation) that are politically motivated are likely to get challenged in court,” Kent-Lavy says, “and are what got us here to begin with. This decision is an invitation for states to look at what’s working.”