Saturday, October 23, 2010

Missouri Supreme Court Reviews Juvenile Life WIthout Parole

The Missouri Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on the issue of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that LWOP can only be applied to juveniles as punishment for the crime of murder, Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ____ (2010). Some in Missouri are looking to expand the restriction to all juvenile punishment. I have written about JLWOP for the Youngstown Vindicator and the Pennsylvania Law Weekly.

Missouri law requires people convicted of first-degree murder to be executed or sentenced to life in prison. The problem with mandatory sentences is judges and juries cannot consider the juveniles' age, maturity and other mitigating factors before deciding upon the punishment.

Courts in recent years have focused on how to handle juveniles accused of serious felonies and other crimes. In 2005,the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)barring the execution of juveniles, and this year the Court decided Graham.

According to the Associated Press, Missouri Supreme Court Justuce Laura Denvir Stith was among the most active with her questioning during oral arguments Wednesday. She said the next question with juveniles is whether it is acceptable to sentence teens to life automatically without evaluating each defendant.

Missouri Assistant Attorney General Evan Buchheim defended the life sentence Wednesday. He told the state high court that nearly every state has lifetime prison sentences and that the U.S. Supreme Court specifically permitted life sentences for juveniles in murder cases.

Buchheim argued there is little difference whether the punishment is selected or required by state law.

"It seems to me to be the same thing — a mandatory life without parole sentence or a sentence of life without parole," Buchheim said.

Nationwide, more than 2,200 teens have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to a 2007 report by the Equal Justice Initiative. The Montgomery, Ala.-based group represents juveniles, death row inmates and the indigent, and opposes the sentencing of young teens to life prison terms without the opportunity for parole, reported the Associated Press.

Besides mandatory life sentences, the Missouri Supreme Court also considered the constitutionality of the state's system for deciding whether juveniles should be prosecuted as adults.

According to the Associated Press, under Missouri law, juveniles are handled by special courts that focus on improving behavior and are not treated like criminal cases.

Children as young as 12 can be charged with a felony as an adult depending on the circumstances of the case. A judge decides whether the defendant should be prosecuted as a juvenile or adult after considering 10 factors, including the seriousness of the alleged crime and the individual's age, sophistication and maturity.

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