Saturday, October 5, 2013

GateHouse: Confusion reigns for juvenile life without parole

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
October 4, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court is recognized as the ultimate court of last resort. That means the final word rests with the nine justices sitting in Washington’s “marble palace.” Yet the court often leaves us scratching our heads after seemingly straightforward decisions.

In the last 10 years, the Supreme Court has made some monumental decisions about the punishment of young offenders. In Roper v. Simmons, decided in 2005, the court held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to impose the death penalty for killings committed by juveniles. Graham v. Florida, a 2010 decision, ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles.

Most recently, in Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that a “mandatory” sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile was unconstitutional.

Following the Roper decision, all the offenders who committed their crimes as juveniles were released from death row. After Graham, all the offenders serving life for non-homicide offenses committed as juveniles were released or scheduled for parole consideration.

However, in the wake of Miller, most of the roughly 2,000 inmates serving mandatory life without parole for killings committed as juveniles have not had their sentences vacated. Why? The court didn’t provide any rules or guidelines for carrying out the decision.

The earlier decisions prohibited the government from ever imposing certain punishments — the death penalty or life without parole for non-homicide crimes. Those were considered substantive changes to the law. Miller does not make it unconstitutional in all circumstances for a state to impose a sentence of life without parole. Rather, Miller only holds that a life sentence for a juvenile cannot be mandatory. Some suggest this was a procedural change in the law and therefore not retroactive.

Individual states have been left to decide whether Miller applies to all juvenile life sentences, whenever imposed. In Pennsylvania, which has the largest number of inmates whose sentences are covered by Miller, the state supreme court has been considering the retroactivity question for over a year. The matter was argued on Sept. 12, 2012, and there has not been a decision. In fact, because the law is evolving so rapidly around the country, lawyers have asked to reargue the matter before the court.

In Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, judges have ruled that the Supreme Court decision applies retroactively to all prisoners serving mandatory life sentences regardless of when they were sentenced, reported Stateline, the news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts. In Minnesota and Florida, judges have ruled that the Supreme Court decision only applies to future cases.

The Minnesota Supreme Court decided that "the rule announced in Miller is a new rule of criminal constitutional procedure that is neither substantive nor a watershed rule implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding."

A federal judge ruled that Michigan must grant parole consideration to anyone convicted of murder as a juvenile, rejecting the state attorney general’s request that Miller only applies to offenders who challenged the state’s law.

An Iowa court recently ruled that Gov. Terry Branstad overreached last year when he commuted the life sentences of offenders convicted as juveniles and imposed an opportunity for parole after 60 years in prison. The court said the governor's commutation still amounted to a life sentence without parole.

The issues of procedure and substance mean little to a prisoner facing a lifetime behind bars. This issue turns on fairness. Why would a juvenile who was convicted of a murder in 1983 be any more culpable than a juvenile who committed a murder in 2013? Granted, the court did not abolish life without parole, but a juvenile offender who is entitled to a reasonable opportunity for parole for a crime committed today, is no more entitled to that relief than an offender who committed her crime 10, 20 or 50 years ago.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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