Juveniles with Mandatory Life Sentences Should be Resentenced

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John LashThe recent decision (reported here by the L.A. Times) by the U.S. Supreme Court to ban mandatory juvenile life without parole has been rightly celebrated as a victory by activists and others interested in progressive policies. The ruling has left many scratching their heads in its wake though, mostly because the court ruled the sentences unconstitutional, but did not directly assign a process for revisiting the cases, many of which are decades old.

A few opponents to the ruling are even contending that it cannot be applied retroactively. Youth Radio interviewed Jennifer Bishop, the President of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. Ms. Bishop, who has previously written for JJIE, is a victims’ rights advocate whose group focuses on those most affected by juvenile murderers: families. The group’s website, teenkillers.org, offers links to analyses of the court’s decision that argue for letting current sentences stand, a very narrow interpretation of the ruling.

In Michigan, second only to Pennsylvania in the number of affected prisoners, the court of Appeals is hearing a case that, “may shape the fate of 368 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences…” committed as juveniles. Jonathan Oosting, writing for MLive, details the difficulties facing the court. These same difficulties will be faced in jurisdictions around the country. Some states will use legislation to move into compliance, as Reuters explained in a September article on California’s new law covering relevant cases.

Others, at least for a time, will depend on courts to solve the problem. This will have its own difficulties, since in many ways this is asking the court to create law. The presiding appeals court judge in Michigan, Michael J. Talbot, points out that it is unclear whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision was substantive or, “merely a procedural issue.” If it is substantive, it affects all cases. If not, then the ruling would only apply to the cases before the court and to future cases. Talbot, speaking about the decision, said, “If Kagan had the votes, she would have said it was substantive. But it's not clear because she didn't."

This confusion is unfortunate, and it means that advocates, both for and against the ruling have a lot of work left to do. It is likely that these cases will drag on for years. For me the decision is easy. I favor resentencing of all affected prisoners. I realize that this will put a burden on the courts and everyone else involved, most unfortunately of all on the victims.

I see no other way forward though. The trend in the court’s recent decisions is clear, and argues for taking into account the differences between juveniles and adults. This way of viewing young people will likely continue, and it is in fact supported by science and research. Let’s take the time, and the trouble, to look at these cases now. The states will still be allowed to implement life without parole if they deem it necessary, but those serving the sentences, most of whom are adults now, deserve the chance to have their cases looked at through this evolving lens of understanding into how the adolescent mind works, and how it can change.

3 thoughts on “Juveniles with Mandatory Life Sentences Should be Resentenced

  1. My uncle is 1 of the 500 in Pennsylvania given LWOP in 1987..Ive spoken to him several times this Month..He doesnt know nothing he asking me if i know anything knew bout the Supreme Courts Decision..gotta get back to work ..sorry..i will get back to u….

  2. In response to the commenter above, it is arguable whether Miller v. Alabama applies retroactively, and while a couple of courts have ruled that it does not (see, e.g., Geter v. Florida, No. 3D12-1736 (3d Dist. App. Sept. 27, 2012)), other courts have held that it does (see, e.g., Louisiana v. Simmons, No. 11-KP-1810 (La. Oct. 12, 2012)). There is a strong — and I would say persuasive — argument that the ruling in Miller was substantive and not merely procedural, as there was a previous Supreme Court decision that eliminated mandatory death sentences and then led to resentencing in states allowing capitol punishment. As was recently argued before the Michigan Court of Appeals, “Rulings are deemed substantive if they prohibit a certain category of punishment for a class of offenders on the basis of their status or offense. In this case… what they banned was mandatory application without parole.”

    Another argument in support of retroactive application of Miller is that the US Supreme Court itself granted relief to a minor in a case tied to Miller (Jackson v. Hobbs) who was already sentenced to life without parole. The court would not have done that unless it meant the ruling to apply to all people similarly situated.

    As for alternative sentences for these offenders, once you declare mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles unconstitutional, most states have no other available sentences for first- and second- degree murder. So courts may opt for a reversion to the sentence for third-degree murder, which is typically the next most severe sentence available after first- and second- degree murder.

    Yes, it is likely to be costly to have resentencing hearings, but such a cost pales in comparison to the cost of warehousing young offenders for many decades without even the possibility of review.

    Your question of how we can do this and still provide support and information to victims’ families without re-traumatizing them is an extremely important one. There are no easy answers, but one strategy is to take steps to have the resentencing hearings focus narrowly on the offender (his role in the offense, his potential for rehabilitation, his background), while referencing the statements of victims’ families submitted at the original hearing. Procedures like this that make it unnecessary for victims’ families to appear in court for these new hearings should be adopted, while still ensuring that the concerns and wishes of these families are represented.

    It is also the reality, however, that there are victims’ families — ones not likely affiliated with your organization — that support the eventual release of the young offender who murdered their loved one. Some of these families have been able to forgive. Some have found it to be healing to witness the teenage offender develop into a productive, responsible adult member of the community.

    Rather than allow ourselves to continue to be pitted against each other many decades after these murders, let us try to work together to consider each case and each offender individually.

    Thank you for your comment and for the opportunity to respond.

    –Tamar Birckhead

  3. The reason that the Supreme Court did not address retroactivity and “create a process for revisiting” the cases, is because legal precedent and Due Process requirements are already CLEAR on this subject. Only cases still open under direct appeal fall under the ruling specifically. The “Teague” rule applies. You cannot re-create due process of law in a case decades old. While state legislatures and courts all over the nation are now going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars interpreting and applying the Miller ruling as they see fit, if you Mr. Lash think we need to re-open all 1300 or so of these JLWOP cases nationally, we would like to see YOUR PLAN for how you are going to support, inform, and not re-traumatize the devastated victims families left behind in these horrible crimes. And how are you going to pay for it? And how are you going to guarantee Due Process of Law? We await your plan with interest. And we look for your actions in support of victims families, not just those who murdered our loved ones. http://www.teenkillers.org