The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
November 30, 2012
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the first state high court to test whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, banning the mandatory imposition of life without parole for juvenile killers (JLWOP), is retroactive.
In September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases: Qu`eed Batts, who, at age 14, committed first-degree murder in a gang-related slaying of a 16-year-old in Easton; and Ian Cunningham, who is serving life for second-degree murder as the result of a conviction out of Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania has also passed S.B. 850 granting future convicted juvenile killers the chance for release after serving between 25 and 35 years, depending on the age of the killer at the time of the crime.
Pennsylvania leads the nation with about 450 offenders serving mandatory life sentences for offenses committed as juveniles. Yet Pennsylvania is not the only state trying to adapt to the Miller decision. There are 39 states with mandatory JLWOP and, apparently, 39 different ways to address Miller.
In Iowa, for instance, the governor commuted the life sentences of 38 people convicted of committing murder when they were juveniles. In July, Governor Terry E. Branstad commuted the sentences but required inmates to serve a minimum of 60 years before being eligible for parole.
An Iowa judge later rebuked Branstad for ignoring the Supreme Court by not providing offenders any meaningful opportunity to obtain release.
“A blanket sentence for 38 juvenile offenders that provides no eligibility for parole for 60 years is not the sort of individualized sentencing envisioned under Miller v. Alabama,” Iowa District Court Judge Timothy O’Grady wrote.
Conduct similar to Governor Branstad was recently struck down by the California Supreme Court. In People v. Caballero, the court held that a sentence, in this case 110 years, that is effectively a de facto life without parole sentence for a juvenile in a non-homicide case violates the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Graham v. Florida. In Graham, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment banned life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.
In North Carolina, the legislature passed S.B. 635 replacing mandatory life for juveniles with “a minimum of 25 years imprisonment prior to becoming eligible for parole.”
A New Hampshire judge has given a convicted teen killer until January to file an expert witness report in his request for resentencing. Another offender, who helped kill two Dartmouth College professors as a teenager, has also requested resentencing.
In Florida, at least two state appellate courts have ruled that Miller is not retroactive. Michigan’s attorney general has asked the state Supreme Court to declare that Miller is not retroactive, a decision that could affect over 300 inmates. Nebraska’s Board of Pardons will consider requests for commutation filed by juvenile lifers. Proposed legislation in Wyoming provides that juvenile lifers could become eligible for parole after 25 years behind bars.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed S.B. 9 permitting 309 juvenile lifers to seek reconsideration of their sentences after they served at least 15 years in prison. A judge could then reduce the sentences to 25 years-to-life if the inmate shows remorse and is taking steps toward rehabilitation.
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