« "Criminal-Justice Apps" | Main | Kansas doctor gets federal LWOP sentence for abusive opioid prescribing »

March 9, 2019

Notable review of juvenile lifers in Tennessee

This local article, headlined "3 takeaways from our review of all 185 Tennessee teen lifers," provides an effective review of the maxed-out incarceration of certain youth in the Volunteer State. Here are excerpts:

In December, activists confronted former Gov. Bill Haslam at an education event and demanded that he grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a Nashville woman serving a life sentence in prison for a murder she committed at 16.

At the time, the outgoing Republican governor said he wanted to treat the case fairly, along with cases that were similar but had not received the same level of publicity as Brown's case.  Indeed, Brown had celebrities — including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West — advocating on her behalf, and she had a team of powerful lawyers who volunteered to pursue her freedom.

Ultimately, Haslam decided to grant Brown clemency, calling her sentence too harsh.  And he acknowledged her case was not unique, saying he hoped "serious consideration of additional reforms will continue, especially with respect to the sentencing of juveniles."

In the wake of his decision, the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee spent weeks reviewing the cases of each of the 185 men and women serving a life sentence — or life without parole — for crimes they committed as teens....

Nearly three-quarters of those serving life sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 18 are African-American men.

Here are some of the other breakdowns of the 185 people serving life.  Seven are serving life sentences for crimes committed at age 14; 26 were 15 years old at the time of their crimes; 53 were 16. The rest were 17.  Ten are women.

Fourteen are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, while the remainder face at least 51 years behind bars before their first chance for a parole hearing.  The oldest is Robert Walker, sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1972 at age 16. He is now 63....

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said many young defendants face childhood hardships and traumas that can be overcome with time and treatment. “There are so many others like Cyntoia,” Akbari said. “It’s so complicated when you’re dealing with loss of life, but we are talking about children,” she said. “As horrific as it sounds that a child committed murder, the person they are now is not the person they will be in 20 years.”

Indeed, in many of the cases the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee reviewed, court records document a history of abuse suffered by the convicted teens.

A 16-year-old girl sentenced to life in prison in the stabbing death of her mother was repeatedly forced to watch her mother have sex with multiple men.

A 15-year-old boy whose stepfather regularly beat his mother got into a confrontation with the man while asking if he would let them peacefully leave. The boy beat the stepfather to death with a baseball bat.

A 17-year-old boy killed his father after what he and his mother described as years of physical and emotional abuse that had been reported to the state. The father threatened to beat the boy after a suicide attempt and withheld mental health medication, according to the mother. The boy shot his father with a rifle and stole his truck.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings in recent years that found mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional except in rare circumstances....  In Tennessee, the Supreme Court's rulings have not had an impact because there is no mandatory life sentence. Life sentences with the possibility of parole include a mandatory review after at least 51 years served — a length of time advocates call a virtual life sentence.

This companion article, headlined "In Tennessee, 185 people are serving life for crimes committed as teens," includes this discussion of some talk of legislative change:

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said many young defendants face childhood hardships and traumas that can be overcome with time and treatment. “There are so many others like Cyntoia,” Akbari said....

Gov. Bill Lee's spokeswoman said he is “open to proposals addressing juvenile sentencing,” and a new state panel is considering future reforms. But there remains little consensus among Tennessee policymakers on what to do when children kill.

Akbari is trying to change Tennessee law to lower the minimum time served before a chance for parole to as low as 30 years for juveniles. The proposal could give many of the 185 a second chance at life outside prison walls for the first time in their adult lives.

Her effort is grounded in research about adolescent brain development that shows people do not fully develop rational decision-making abilities until their 20s. Other research has highlighted the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the developing brain, including sexual and physical abuse, poverty and incarcerated parents — events that can negatively wire some children’s brains.

March 9, 2019 at 04:18 PM | Permalink

Comments

This article once again highlights the Mack-truck-sized loophole in the Graham/Miller jurisprudence: the so-called "virtual" life sentence. (With a related, and very common, issue being the scenario where a juvenile is fully reformed, actually receives parole hearings after a reasonable time period, but is continually denied parole based on "the facts of the crime" and/or "victim opposition.")

As was typical for Kennedy, his opinion was qualitative and imprecise, and it seems that courts are now afraid of overstepping their bounds by putting quantitative teeth into the "meaningful opportunity to obtain release" standard. To some degree this is understandable -- courts don't want to feel like they are writing sentencing legislation. Yet the result of this dynamic is that, functionally, there are hundreds if not thousands of people sitting in prisons in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

I had hoped the Court would continue to enforce and develop the Graham/Miller doctrine, but I am pessimistic that any further positive development will come from this lineup. At this point, likely the best/only solution will be in-the-weeds legislative/prison/parole-board advocacy. Real change probably won't come until the actors inside the system internalize, at least to some degree, the values behind Graham/Miller -- rather than experiencing them as alien concepts imposed from the outside. I believe this kind of change is possible, but it is sure to be slow-going and labor-intensive.

Posted by: anon | Mar 13, 2019 1:19:23 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB