Sonya Ziaja: Death-in-Prison Sentences Constitutional in Wisconsin, at Least for Now

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The Supreme Court of Wisconsin has just ruled that it’s constitutional to sentence juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for intentional homicide. The defendant in that case, Omer Ninham, was 14 years old when he was charged with killing a 13-year-old boy. The case will very likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court hasn’t yet decided whether sentencing a juvenile to “death in prison” is cruel and unusual punishment. It has, however, indicated that how we sentence juveniles has to be different from how we sentence adults. In both Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida the Court relied on scientific evidence about the adolescent brain. Ultimately that evidence allowed the Court to conclude that extreme sentences—respectively, death penalty in cases of homicide and life imprisonment in cases short of homicide—violate the Eigth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a departure from the U.S. Supreme Court’s approach to neuroscience and sentencing, the majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not find scientific studies sufficiently compelling to alter Omer Ninham’s sentence. The dissenting judges, however, relied on science in their discussion of the constitutionality of life sentences for children. They reasoned that imposing a death-in-prison sentence on a 14-year-old child is unconstitutional, considering children’s altered capacity for both culpability and rehabilitation.

While the dissenting judges were outnumbered in Wisconsin, nationally the idea that criminal law needs to reform in light of new scientific findings is gaining ground. Earlier this month, legal scholars and scientists convened for a conference on “Adolescent Brains and Juvenile Justice” in Phoenix. There is ever-mounting scholarship about the developing brain’s ability to make decisions and change that supports alternative sentencing schemes for adolescents. And last month, the Equal Justice Initiative appealed two cases, involving death-in-prison sentences for 14-year-olds, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We don’t have the Supreme Court’s final say on death-in-prison sentence yet, but it looks like Wisconsin’s decision might not last long.


The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


One thought on “Sonya Ziaja: Death-in-Prison Sentences Constitutional in Wisconsin, at Least for Now

  1. I like how so many people advocating on behalf of Ninham make sure to gloss over just how horrific his crime really was.