Matthew T. Mangino
The Pennsylvania Law Weekly
August 5, 2014
Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court decided that Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles unconstitutional, should not be applied retroactively.
The Michigan Supreme Court found in a 4-3 decision in People v. Carp, No. 146478, that the rule announced in Miller does not satisfy either the federal test for retroactivity set forth in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), or the tests established by Michigan state law. Furthermore, neither the Eighth Amendment nor the Michigan Constitution categorically bars the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender.
The ruling is a defeat for more than 350 Michigan inmates serving mandatory life sentences without parole for murders committed when they were juveniles. A number second only to Pennsylvania's 450-plus inmates.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision on mandatory life in prison is just one in a series of decisions that have softened the grip of the "tough-on-crime" movement that has dramatically impacted young offenders.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. The court ruled that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for the young. According to The Sentencing Project, the ruling affected 72 juveniles in 12 states. Most of those young people were resentenced to life in prison.
In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of homicide. The court ruled, "A state need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term."
There were approximately 129 offenders from 11 states serving life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed as juveniles. A significant majority of those offenders were from the state of Florida.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller. The court found that mandatory life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled, as it had in the past, that juveniles are not as responsible as adults for their conduct. However, the decision did not ban life sentences for juveniles. The decision simply said such sentences could not be automatic.
However, the Miller decision left open a very important question, especially in Pennsylvania: Would the ruling apply to the inmates in Pennsylvania who were serving life sentences for offenses committed as juveniles?
The ruling affected 28 states where automatic life without the possibility of parole was the only sentencing option left open to judges in capital cases involving juveniles.
In October 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Commonwealth v. Cunningham, No. 38 EAP 2012. The court ruled that Miller only applied to cases that were pending on appeal at the time Miller was decided in June 2012.
Justice Thomas G. Saylor, who wrote the majority opinion in Cunningham, was not convinced that "the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon offenders under the age of 18 at the time their crimes were committed must be extended to those whose judgments of sentence were final as of the time of Miller's announcement."
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Ian Cunningham's appeal. The rejection impacted Pennsylvania inmates as well as another 2,000 inmates across the country who were watching to see what might happen if the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
When Michigan fell in line with Pennsylvania, it became the fourth state, along with Louisiana and Minnesota, to find the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller was not retroactive. Six states—Illinois, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Massachusetts and Mississippi—have ruled that Miller is retroactive.
Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the high court is going to have to take up the matter sooner or later. He said it was "intolerable for a citizen of Pennsylvania to be denied relief, while a citizen of Texas gets relief. That is not a just result."
Also in response to Miller, Pennsylvania amended its law to remove the mandatory aspect of the statute and provide judges with some discretion when sentencing juvenile offenders. The new law, codified at 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 1102.1, provides a judge may sentence a juvenile under the age of 15 convicted of first-degree murder to either life without parole or a term of imprisonment not less than 25 years. A juvenile over the age of 15 may be sentenced to life without parole or to a term of imprisonment not less than 35 years.
A juvenile convicted of second-degree murder, if under the age of 15, shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not less than 20 years to life. If over the age of 15, the defendant shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not less than 30 years to life.
Pennsylvania is one of 13 states that have passed legislation to address mandatory life sentences for juveniles. Fifteen states—Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina and Vermont—have done nothing.
Although the legislature has acted and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled, the issues are still murky. As a result, Pennsylvania Senate Resolution No. 304 has mandated the Joint State Government Committee to "conduct a study of the Juvenile Act [and] ... include a review of how Pennsylvania and other states have responded to Miller v. Alabama, and whether changes should be made to Pennsylvania law as a result."
As a member of the advisory committee beginning the process of studying these issues, I am looking forward to the next year and would like to hear from you. Please send me your questions or comments on this important matter. Email your thoughts and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book, "The Executioner's Toll, 2010," was recently released by McFarland & Co. Contact him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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