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August 26, 2013

Terrific Stateline review of states' varied applications of and reactions to Miller

Pew juveMaggie Clark over at Stateline has this notable new article (and this amazing associated resource) reviewing all the diverse ways states are deal with the Supreme Court's Miller ruling. the piece is headlined "After Supreme Court Ruling, States Act on Juvenile Sentences," and here are excerpts:

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences for offenders under 18 are cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. In the wake of that decision, a federal court this month ruled that ... more than 300 other Michigan juvenile lifers are entitled to a parole hearing.

Michigan is one of at least 11 states that have revisited their sentencing laws in response to the Supreme Court decision (see Stateline chart).  Generally, juvenile killers in those states will be eligible for a parole hearing after serving a mandatory minimum sentence of about 25 years.

Still, there are at least 15 states that have not yet eliminated mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.  In many states, legislatures and courts aren’t sure how the Miller decision should apply to offenders such ... already serving such sentences. Nationwide, there are more than 2,000 prisoners in 43 states serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles....

[I]n Pennsylvania, which has largest number of inmates whose sentences are covered by the Supreme Court ruling, the state Supreme Court has been considering the retroactivity question for over a year.  The court’s decision could lead to the resentencing and eventual release of over 400 convicted murderers.

In Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, judges have ruled that the Supreme Court decision applies retroactively to all prisoners serving such sentences.  But in Minnesota and Florida, judges have ruled that the Supreme Court decision only applies to future cases.

State Supreme Courts in Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts and Colorado will likely consider the retroactivity question this fall, said Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, a legal advocacy group for youth....

The super-predator theory, popular in the early 1990s, predicted a wave of juvenile violent crime in the following decade. States reacted by treating many juvenile offenders as if they were adults.  Between 1992 and 1995, 48 states increased penalties for juveniles convicted of violent crime, according to the Department of Justice.  But that wave never came: Juvenile crime started to drop in the early 1990s, and it has continued to decline in the years since, as has adult crime.

The harsher juvenile sentencing laws likely were not a factor in the decline, since data show there was no difference in the crime rate for states with mandatory life without parole sentences and those without.  Crime has declined nationwide, and across all demographics....

Considering youth as a mitigating factor is part of the Supreme Court’s broader move toward treating kids differently than adults.  In two decisions banning the death penalty for juveniles for both homicide and non-homicide crimes, the justices relied heavily on neuroscience showing that brains are still growing and changing well through the teenage years, meaning that juveniles are likely to grow out of their criminal behavior, especially if they’re put in a rehabilitative setting.

Still, kids are committing adult crimes, and in these cases, victims’ families were promised life without parole sentences for their family member’s killer, said Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.  “Families were told that (the killers) would never be paroled, and that could have been 20 or 30 years ago,” Yearout said.  “Now the families are being told that’s not true anymore and that’s very frightening.  It’s very important to have truth in sentencing so that victims have assurance that the sentence will actually be what’s set.” Schuette has said he will appeal the Michigan federal court decision.

Most of the 11 states that have changed their laws to comply with Miller v. Alabama have either discouraged the use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, or scrapped them altogether.

But because the Supreme Court only struck down mandatory life without parole for juveniles, and not all such sentences, states are not required to completely overhaul their juvenile sentencing policies.  In Alabama, where the Supreme Court case originated, the attorney general recently advised district attorneys to seek life with parole in two ongoing juvenile murder cases. The Alabama legislature has not yet approved any changes in mandatory sentencing laws to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

August 26, 2013 at 05:46 PM | Permalink

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"In two decisions banning the death penalty for juveniles for both homicide and non-homicide crimes, the justices relied heavily on neuroscience showing that brains are still growing and changing well through the teenage years, meaning that juveniles are likely to grow out of their criminal behavior, especially if they’re put in a rehabilitative setting."

Of course, the nitwits that bought the logic that releasing prisoners may improve public safety don't seem to understand that while it may be true that their brains are developing, there's no a priori way of knowing which ones should never ever get the benefit of a chance at release because of the danger to innocent people.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 26, 2013 9:34:53 PM

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