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June 25, 2012

Basic mandatory juve LWOP head-count in light of Miller

This article by Warren Richey for the Christian Science Monitor reviews the basics of the Supreme Court's work today in Miller and provides this quick accounting of the number of sentences obviously thrown into question by the ruling:

Currently about 2,500 individuals are serving life without parole prison sentences for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old. Of those, roughly 2,000 of the sentences were mandatory.

These numbers sound about right to me (these are the numbers bandied about by the Chief Justice in his dissent), though I would be grateful to see/hear a more precise accounting from anyone in the know.

Interestingly, the two states with the most juvenile offenders who received mandatory LWOP sentences appear to be Pennsylvania (with nearly 450, I believe) and Michigan (with nearly 350, I believe). Neither of these states have typically been on the cutting edge of Eighth Amendment litigation front-lines in recent years, and it will now be very interesting to watch when and how state courts (and lower federal courts) deal with the coming Miller-inspired litigation.

Other states with lots of mandatory juve LWOP defendants worth watching include California, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Illinois, all of which have, I believe, at least 100 defendants serving state LWOP sentences for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old.  [UPDATE:  Kent rightfully indicates in the comments that California's LWOP sentences are discretionary (though I have heard them called presumptive, raising another possible litigation front.]  Another two dozen states also have more than a handful defendants serving state LWOP sentences for juve crimes, and it is certainly possible (even likely?) that states with a smaller number of problematic JLWOP cases after Miller will be quicker to hear and resolve new Eighth Amendment claims.

June 25, 2012 at 06:47 PM | Permalink


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California's JLWOP statute is discretionary, not mandatory. See footnote 10 of the opinion, citing Cal. Penal Code ยง190.5(b).

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 25, 2012 7:13:38 PM

That 40 of the 2,500 juveniles serving mandatory life sentences are in Pennsylvania is remarkable but not surprising. Pennsylvania is the only state which has no state funding for indigent defense. In the notorious Luzerne County - where two judges took bribes from private juvenile prison operators - the PD had withdrawn from representing juveniles because of gross underfunding.
Key documents about the PD's challenge and the recent Joint legislative Commission report are at http://blackstonetoday.blogspot.com/2012/06/pennsylvania-public-defenders-rebel.html


Posted by: George Conk | Jun 25, 2012 8:12:01 PM

Correction: 450 of the 2,500! are in Pennsylvania.

Posted by: George Conk | Jun 25, 2012 8:13:46 PM

Doug -- according to this link (http://www.usfca.edu/law/jlwop/resource_guide/), states with the greatest numbers of individuals serving JLWOP sentences are Pennsylvania (400+), Michigan (300+), Louisiana (300+), and Florida (250+). It is unclear how recently the site was updated, but these numbers are consistent with what I know about the juvenile sentencing practices of these states.

Posted by: Tamar Birckhead | Jun 25, 2012 8:39:42 PM

I would think challenging California's system would be very hard. They are getting hearings at some point. The courts telling the executive what decisions to make in a parole system is treading very close to separation of powers ground. Courts are well equipped to tell the executive /how/ to go about making a decision but not at all well equipped to tell the executive what the result of that process must be. A presumptive life sentence with opportunity for release wouldn't even seem to run into trouble for non-homicide offenders if we are allowed to take the court at its word in Ghram. The parole board can always say "we looked at his crime, at his demeanor and the stuff he's done while locked up, he's just not ready for release"

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 25, 2012 8:53:52 PM

It's not going to make that much difference. Many of them will get LWOP again, and most of the rest will get really long sentences although not (technically) life. None of these guys is in for other than very serious stuff, as any future jury (and judge) is going to recognize.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 25, 2012 9:15:06 PM

George, I was surprised to see you say that PA is the only state that has no provision for indigent defense services. I understand that Georgia does it on a county-by-county low bid system, that Oklahoma only provides state funding for appeals, and that there are, in fact, many states that have no state support. Am I wrong?

PS My wife is from Luzerne County. NOTHING about that miserable scandal surprised me...

Posted by: Michael Perlin | Jun 26, 2012 11:15:49 AM

Colorado with about 46 is mandatory.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 26, 2012 3:10:03 PM

Michael -

According to the recent Joint Legislative Commission report Pennsylvania is now the only state that provides no STATE funds for indigent defense. It relies solely on the counties. Nor does it provide any state oversight of indigent defense.
- George

Posted by: George Conk | Jun 26, 2012 8:51:26 PM

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