Grassroots Push Central to Juvenile Sentencing Reforms

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since last summer, state legislatures around the country have been scrambling to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting states from sentencing children to mandatory life terms in prison without the chance of parole.

Significant grassroots pressure remains necessary to ensure state legislators don’t try to create wiggle room around the court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, said youth justice advocates at a recent panel discussion organized by the American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. Members of the panel argued that sentencing reforms should take into account the cognitive and developmental differences between adolescents and adults.

Among the legal complexities unleashed upon states by Miller v. Alabama last June are the questions of whether the ruling applies retroactively to sentences already handed down, and whether, regardless of mandates, life terms without parole or other long-term sentences that effectively ensure death in prison are ever acceptable for juveniles, panelists said.

Twenty-nine states currently have laws that directly contradict the Miller decision, said Daniel Gutman, a state strategist for The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which lobbies for the abolishment of life sentences without parole for all juveniles.

“When we’re talking about legislative reform in response to the Miller decision, it’s a very difficult process and there’s lots of different statutes at work,” Gutman said.

Connecticut, Nebraska and Illinois are currently considering proposals to abolish life sentences without parole for juveniles, Gutman said. Wyoming has already abolished such a sentence, enacting in its place the possibility of terms ranging from 25 years to life.

“We have a problem with that, of course. But it is a promising sign that states are thinking about this in a way that’s going to eliminate life without parole,” Gutman said.

Multiple Supreme Court decisions over the last seven years have created “an incredible amount of change in a very short amount of time,” said panelist Alicia D’Addario, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative.

In Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for minors. In the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida, the court declared it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. And in Miller v. Alabama last year, the court declared mandatory life without parole sentences unconstitutional for all juveniles.

“What we’ve seen is that there’s a lot of resistance to these decisions in child courts,” said D’Addario, who served as the petitioners’ co-counsel in Miller. Even after the Graham decision, which cleared a path to reduced sentences, “We had cases where we went back and the judges re-sentenced our clients to 130 years, or terms of 125 years without parole,” she said. “We even had some judges who completely denied relief and refused to re-sentence.”

That’s because over the last 20 years, as a result of punitive state laws enacted in response to public safety fears, judges have become “very comfortable” with giving children long sentences, D’Addario said.

That’s put the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions philosophically far ahead of many state judges’ practices and beliefs, and many are resisting the recent changes: for example, D’Addario said, there are Alabama judges who are still adjusting to not being able to sentence children to death.

As a result, fair-sentencing advocates have a tremendous amount of public education to do to create a climate where children receive sentences with an opportunity for release, she said.

When lobbying state legislatures for sentencing reform, advocates must emphasize the reasoning the U.S. Supreme Court used to reach its decisions on juvenile sentencing rather than the strict letter of the rulings, Gutman said.

“As advocates and as lawyers, it’s my opinion that we really have an obligation to talk about the Miller decision, the Roper decision, the Graham decision, beyond the factual finding that they came to,” Gutman said.

It’s critical to explain to lawmakers and the public that scientific research shows adolescent brains are still developing and that teenagers are less culpable than adults, he said. Otherwise, lawmakers tend to focus on “the next worse thing” that they can put on the books for juvenile offenders, such as eliminating mandatory sentences but keeping life without parole as an option.

“Sure, 60 to life is not mandatory life without parole, but it still violates every tenet of these decisions in terms of individualized sentencing and meaningful opportunities for parole, and kids being fundamentally different from adults,” Gutman said. “So that’s something we’re hoping to never see again.”

Grassroots pressure remains important as states debate how to proceed this legislative season, he said. “There’s going to be a lot of movement going forward in the next few months in terms of how states are going to address this,” Gutman said.

That means, he said, “a lot of work that we’ll need to do to push back against what we call ‘the next worse thing,’ which obviously we will not be advocating for, and (which we will be) trying to kill in legislatures.”

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