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September 26, 2012

"Juvenile Offenders in Limbo under Outdated State Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this effectivenew  report from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange concerning some state struggles following the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment rulings in Graham and Miller.  Here are excerpts:

More than two years after U.S. Supreme Court decisions started throwing out mandatory death and life sentences for minors, judges in Washington, Illinois and dozens of other states still lack guidance on what to do with juveniles past and present convicted of murder and some other serious felonies.

“Courts are uncomfortable in trying to figure out what ‘life’ means in terms of years,” said Kimberly Ambrose, senior law lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law. She represented Guadalupe Solis-Diaz at the state’s Court of Appeals, arguing against a 92-year sentence he’s serving for six counts of first-degree assault and other charges for his role in a drive-by shooting.  The then 16-year-old Solis-Diaz fired into a crowd in Centralia, Wash., in 2007, though did not injure his target or anyone else.

It’s not clear in Washington if those 92 years are equivalent to what the U.S. Supreme Court calls “life” sentences.  The federal high court has definitively thrown out state sentencing laws that mandate life without parole for juveniles.  Beginning with the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case and more recently with Graham v. Florida in 2010 and Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the court says that juveniles are not yet fully mentally developed, are less culpable and more capable of reform.  Therefore, lower court judges must consider those and other mitigating factors when sentencing juveniles for both homicide and non-homicide offenses.

Solis-Diaz’ counsel at his original sentencing failed to mention that U.S. Supreme Court trend.  That omission, said the state appeals court, was one of several mistakes that contributed to their decision this month to throw out Solis-Diaz’ 92 years, on grounds of ineffective counsel.  “This is the first life-equivalent case to come before a Washington appellate court,” said Ambrose, speaking of non-homicide offenses.

But the court also noted it would not opine on any other sentence for Solis-Diaz.  “The legislature is the appropriate body to define crimes and fix punishments.  To the extent that Graham suggests that an opportunity for parole must be available for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses, only the Legislature has the authority to amend the SRA [Sentencing Reform Act] to allow for such remedy,” the opinion reads....

Many judges are grappling with how to amend their current laws to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on juvenile sentences.   Some state legislatures have yet to update laws to comply with the two-year-old Graham case.  And most state legislatures have been closed since the June, 2012 Miller decision, so have had no chance to start thinking about it.  Thus judges dealing with juveniles convicted of murder must figure out if it would apply to juvenile offenders sentenced before it, and how to handle appeals, all without legislative guidelines....

More than 100 people have been sentenced to life without chance of parole in Illinois for crimes committed as minors, according to a 2010 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Nationally, there are more than 2,500 juvenile offenders who have received this sentence in the states that did or do allow it, according to The Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy group....

Michigan’s Supreme Court declined to settle retroactivity in its state this month. Attorney General Bill Schuette asked the Court to rule out retroactivity on the life sentence of a man convicted of participating in an armed robbery as a 16-year-old.  Instead, the court remanded the case for resentencing.

The Washington Court of Appeals ruling referenced above was announced in this "unpublished" state habeas opinion handed down last week.  In addition, this local article, headlined "Rebuffed by Michigan Supreme Court, Attorney General Bill Schuette presses forward to keep juvenile lifers behind bars,"  provides more background on the efforts by the Michigan AG to prevent the Miller ruling from applying retroactively.  It starts this way:

Attorney General Bill Schuette has lost his bid to have the state Supreme Court halt resentencing of juvenile lifers, so he is turning to the next best thing. Schuette will attempt to join a case currently before the state Court of Appeals, where judges will soon hear a request to reconsider the sentence of a man serving a mandatory life term for a killing at age 15.

The battle stems from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that found mandatory life sentences for minors are unconstitutionally cruel. Schuette claims the ruling should not be retroactive. “This is the best opportunity we’re going to have to get an answer on retroactivity,” said Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for Schuette. “The decision will still be binding on all lower courts.”

Schuette argues the new mandate that mitigating circumstances, including age, must be considered before sentencing is not a “watershed event,” but a mere procedural change affecting only current and future cases.

The state Supreme Court on Sept. 1 rejected Schuette’s request to immediately settle the retroactivity issue in a 1993 murder case involving 16-year-old Cortez Davis, now 35. Instead, the court sent the case back to Wayne County Circuit Court for consideration, possibly forcing a long wait if the ultimate decision is appealed by either side.

September 26, 2012 at 01:39 PM | Permalink

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Comments

We've got this issue in Texas for 17 year olds (who are tried as adults in this state) convicted of capital murder. Texas already eliminated LWOP for juvies before the SCOTUS ruling, but the cases on 17 year olds are in limbo, with no legal sentences currently available for them. Our Legislature will have to do something on it when they meet in 2013.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 27, 2012 8:11:49 AM

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