The following is an excerpt from an op-ed co-authored by Marsha Levick, Deputy Director & Chief Counsel, Juvenile Law Center; Jody Kent Lavy, Director National Coordinator, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth; and Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project, posted on the Juvenile Law Center website.
Joe Ligon is a 75-year-old inmate who was condemned to die in a prison in Philadelphia over six decades ago for a murder he witnessed, but did not commit. With no disciplinary infractions and serious health issues, including cancer, he is a gentle man whose continued confinement aptly illustrates the insanity of these extreme sentencing practices.
Two years ago, we thought Joe and the thousands of others like him might have some hope. On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole upon a juvenile (JLWOP). The ruling immediately voided sentencing laws in 28 states, where approximately 2,100 individuals were serving a mandatory life without parole sentence for murder committed before they turned 18. Another 400+ youth are serving discretionary life sentences across the country.
Initial feelings of optimism were justified. The Court's strong language in Miller, especially on the heels of Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, surely signaled, and indeed required, an end to our nation's love affair with long, harsh sentences for children.
In the face of the ruinous and misguided juvenile justice policies of the 1990s, Miller offered hope that we could now return to a more rational and effective justice policy for youth. Calls for reform nationally have been bi-partisan. Pope Francis recently expressed concern for youth serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as children; and international human rights activists continue to be stunned at our refusal to end JLWOP as we remain the only country in the world that clings to this barbaric sentence.
But we are far from popping the champagne corks.
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