An hour south of Miami, down the street from an alligator farm, a security guard buzzes visitors into the Homestead Correctional Institution. Each guest’s bags are run through a rickety metal detector and he or she is issued a panic button — a portable alarm that can be clipped to a waistband and pressed if an inmate attacks.
Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision banning mandatory life without parole for juvenile criminals gave inmates like Christine Lockheart a glimmer of hope. In response to the Court’s ruling, the Iowa Court of Appeals earlier this month overturned Lockheart’s mandatory life sentence for a murder committed when she was 17 and ordered a judge to hold a new sentencing hearing. But less than a week later, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the sentences of all state prisoners serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as juveniles, and instead gave them life with the possibility of parole after 60 years. Lockheart’s lawyer says he plans to challenge Branstad’s order in court, arguing that it violates the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. That ruling said that sentencing judges should consider the individual circumstances of crimes committed by juveniles, including “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”
Lockheart’s case is among the first of what criminal justice experts say will be numerous and lengthy legal battles as courts and state legislatures across the country determine how to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling — and what to do with the estimated more than 2,000 prisoners currently serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.
Georgia’s high court will hear oral arguments Monday in the appeal of a 27-year-old Tift County man who was sentenced to life plus 20 years for rape when he was a 14-year-old boy. Jonas Brinkley is appealing on the grounds that his sentence violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and that greater-than-life sentences should not be imposed on cases not involving homicide. According to prosecutors, Brinkley committed the rape while a 19-year-old friend, Lakendrick Carter, detained the victim’s boyfriend in another room. Brinkley and Carter also stole $180 from the couple before leaving their apartment. Carter was given 15 years in prison plus another five years of probation in exchange for his testimony against Brinkley. Five days after his sentencing, Brinkley, through his attorney, filed a motion for a new trial.
In 1997, a 14-year-old boy named Christopher Middleton pled guilty in a Georgia Superior Court to armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault and kidnapping arising out of theft of the victim’s vehicle for joyriding by his juvenile friends. (His mother Jajuana Calloway wrote about him in this space last week.)
He was sentenced as an adult without the possibly of parole pursuant to a measure that was enacted by the Georgia Legislature (H.R. 440 and 441) in 1995 to get tough on juvenile crime and often called seven deadly sins legislation. The prosecution had agreed to a recommended 20-year sentence. However, at the sentencing hearing the victim who had not received any physical injuries, said she would not feel safe with the 14-year old being released before he would be 45 years of age. The trial judge then sentenced him to 30 years without the possibility of parole.