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April 2, 2016

Noticing the notable nature of states now categorically banning LWOP for juvenile murderers

This Washington Post piece by Amber Phillips spotlights an interesting reality as states continue to engage with some of the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. This piece is headlined "States are getting rid of life sentences for minors.  And most of them are red states."  Here are excerpts:

As America revisits its tough-on-crime policies from decades past, much of how to fix our criminal justice system is still up for debate.  Most prominently, a bipartisan bill to rewrite the nation's sentencing laws is slogging through Congress and may well get stuck there.

But criminal justice reform advocates are celebrating a surprising amount of success in one area largely off the radar of the national debate: banning the practice of sentencing minors to life in prison without parole.

Twenty-one states ban entirely or in most cases the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Many of those bans have been instituted in the past decade. Lately, Republican-leaning states have been picking up the cause, an indication that the sentencing practice instituted in the 1990s is on its way out.

On Tuesday, Utah became the second state this year to ban such sentences, after South Dakota. And in the past few years, Wyoming, Nevada and West Virginia have instituted some version of the ban. Since a critical 2012 Supreme Court decision on this issue, the number of states that have banned the practice has more than tripled, said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

The debate, like many others in criminal justice reform, is hard to separate from race; advocates say the minors who have been sentenced to life without parole are 10 times as likely to be black than white. "There's clearly been a shift and a recognition that young people need to be held accountable in more age-appropriate ways, and we've really gone too far in our approach to youth sentencing," Lavy said....

In Utah, the debate to eliminate the practice from the books went pretty smoothly, said state Rep. Lowry Snow (R), who sponsored the bill. "I didn't have to twist a lot of arms," he said.

Snow and advocates say the arguments speak for themselves; they cite research that adolescents' brains are still growing and, thus, are not as skilled as adults' in controlling impulses or thinking through long-term actions. "They're not the same people when they're 16, 17, 18 than they are when they're 40 and 50 years old," he said.

Another argument that seems to resonate among more conservative, religious lawmakers is one of redemption. "Utah is very prone to a recognition that there can be redemption and people can be given a second chance," Snow said....

At its basic level, the debate over whether to keep or get rid of life sentences without parole mirrors the debate over the death penalty: What's the most appropriate way to punish someone for a heinous crime?  In that sense, there is still opposition to the idea of banning life-without-parole sentences for minors.

Some crimes "are so heinous, so violent, so destructive … that maybe in rare cases they should receive the sentence of life without parole," state Rep. Merrill Nelson (R) said on the floor of the Utah statehouse after he spoke with the father of a teen who was killed by another teen.  "Why should we take that discretion away from the judge?"

A victims advocacy group, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, says a ban is out of step for several reasons: The potentially un-ending parole process is often "torture" for a victim's family, and while it doesn't advocate for any specific sentence, it does not see why the life-without-parole option should be taken off the table....

And success, as described here, is relative.  More than half of U.S. states still allow the sentence, after all.  But given the broader political context in which these bans are coming, criminal justice reform advocates will take what they can get.

April 2, 2016 at 11:49 AM | Permalink

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