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August 5, 2012

"Despite Supreme Court Ruling, Many Minors May Stay in Prison for Life"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent ProPublica report.  Here are excerpts:

A few weeks after the [Miller] ruling, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad announced he would commute the life without parole sentences of 38 juvenile offenders, and make them eligible for parole after 60 years....

Under the Supreme Court's ruling, minors can still get life without parole sentences — just not automatically after a conviction; instead a judge will need to decide, taking into account the minor's youth.

For the roughly 2,500 juvenile offenders already sentenced to life in prison without parole, the upshot of the ruling — Miller v. Alabama — seemed clear: "They will all get another bite at the sentencing apple," Dan Filler, a professor at Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law, wrote shortly after the ruling.

That may not happen if Iowa's governor or many other states get their way.  "Justice is a balance and these commutations ensure that justice is balanced with punishment for those vicious crimes and taking into account public safety," Gov. Branstad said in announcing his order.

The governor's action, which sidesteps any potential resentencing hearings, has sparked criticism and legal challenges.  Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta who teaches at Yale Law School, called the governor's order "questionable legally and bad public policy."...

Yet Filler, the Drexel law professor who wrote about the ruling, said it actually leaves the details to states to iron out.  "When you look at the decision closely, it implicitly leaves room for exactly what the governor of Iowa did," he told ProPublica.  "It doesn't give us any guidance.  You have to see this decision as entirely cloudy.  Different states are going to try different things."

Indeed, some states have suggested they don't plan on rolling back minors' life without parole sentences, pointing out the Supreme Court left unclear whether its ruling should be applied retroactively to minors already sentenced....

In the wake of Miller, some states around the country have already taken legislative action.  North Carolina recently passed an amendment granting juvenile lifers parole review after 25 years.  It also requires judges to consider such factors as age, immaturity, intellectual capacity, mental health history, and the influence of familial or peer pressure when imposing punishment.

In Michigan, which boasts the second-highest number of juvenile lifers, criminal defense attorneys have begun mobilizing legal assistance for current inmates despite disagreement as to whether or not the court's decision is retroactive.

In Pennsylvania, the state with the most number of juvenile offenders serving life without parole (444), the state Senate Judiciary Committee recently solicited testimony from various stakeholders to decide how to proceed. The issue of retroactivity there, too, remains uncertain.

Related recent posts on Miller:

August 5, 2012 at 05:31 PM | Permalink

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