EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, July 14, 2017

Are Juvenile Nonhomicide Sentences That Exceed Life Expectancy Cruel and Unusual?

In Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime. Prior to Tuesday, seventeen state supreme courts have addressed a related issue: Does the Eighth Amendment permit a juvenile offender in a nonhomicide case to be sentenced to multiple fixed-term periods that, in the aggregate, total more than his life expectancy. In Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Missouri became the eighteenth state supreme court to address the issue. How did it rule?

In Willbanks v. Department of Corrections, 2017 WL 2952445 (Mo. 2017), "Timothy S. Willbanks was 17 years old when he was charged with kidnapping, first-degree assault, two counts of first-degree robbery, and three counts of armed criminal action." After he was convicted, Willbanks was "sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 15 years for the kidnapping count, life for the assault count, 20 years for each of the two robbery counts, and 100 years for each of the three armed criminal action counts."

Willbanks subsequently appealed, claiming that this sentence was "cruel and unusual" under the Eighth Amendment because "[u]nder Missouri's rules governing parole, Willbanks would not become eligible for parole until age 85, which is at or beyond what the parties identify as his life expectancy of 79 years." Therefore, Willibanks claimed that his sentence was the functional equivalent of life without parole and prohibited pursuant to Graham v. Florida.

In response a majority of the Supreme Court of Missouri noted that Graham held that "[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." But the court then held that

Although Graham found, "[w]ith respect to life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, none of the goals of penal sanctions that have been recognized as legitimate—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation—provides an adequate justification,"...Willbanks and the dissent have failed to show these penological goals are not served by sentencing juveniles to multiple fixed-term sentences. The effect of an offender's age on these penological concerns is better suited for the General Assembly than this Court.

As the majority acknowledged, however, the majority of state supreme courts have reached a different conclusion. While five state supreme courts reached the same conclusion, "[t]he remaining 12 state supreme courts that have considered this issue have held that, at some point, without uniform agreement as to when, aggregate sentences and parole ineligibility for juvenile offenders constitutes cruel and unusual punishment."

The dissent would have reached this same conclusion, initially noting that

Graham held the unique characteristics of juveniles categorically barred the application of a LWOP sentence for a nonhomicide offense because such sentences are justified by "none of the legitimate goals of penal sanctions—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation."...Juvenile offenders have lessened culpability and are less deserving of the most severe punishments....Lack of maturity and the inability to consider possible punishment make juveniles less susceptible to deterrence....Because it is dubious whether the sentencer can at the outset determine that a juvenile is "irredeemable," interest in incapacitation for fear of recidivism is diminished....Finally, LWOP closes the door forever to furthering the goal of rehabilitation.

The dissent then concluded that

substance, not form, should control. Whether labeled "LWOP," the sentences imposed on Willbanks are subject to Graham's categorical rule because like formal LWOP sentences, de facto life sentences also are the "'denial of hope'" and mean "'that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial...that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of [the defendant], he will remain in prison for the rest of his days.'"

I strongly agree with the dissent and the "substance" approach vs. the "form" approach. Graham clearly stands for the proposition that courts should not deem juveniles irredeemable, meaning that they need to be afforded some meaningful chance at being paroled. Even though the sentence in Willbanks wasn't technically a LWOP sentence, it was functionally one and thus constitutionally challengeable under Graham.



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Interesting case, and as a former resident of Missouri, I can say I’m hardly surprised by the conclusion that the Supreme Court of Missouri came to. The court places its conclusion almost entirely on the fact that Graham v Florida was decided on a SINGLE sentence of life without parole for a non-homicide offense, and therefore distinguishes it from Willbanks, where he was convicted of MULTIPLE non-homicide offenses. I find the distinction far from compelling given the specific circumstances. While I have no issue in particular with Willbanks being charged and convicted of multiple actions, I would certainly distinguish Willbanks behavior over a short, essentially contemporaneous sequence of events, as part of a continuing criminal action. That is fundamentally different than someone who had conducted some sequence of criminal actions that were non-contemporaneous. I would be far more sympathetic to the court’s argument if that were the case. Given that it was a sequence of criminal actions that were contemporaneous, I would have found that the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham was not materially distinguishable and that Willbanks should have had an opportunity for parole.

Posted by: FormerAgent | Jul 16, 2017 7:13:35 PM

Cue an increase in multiply-charged crimes for juvenile defendants, as a way to circumvent the problems with standard LWOP sentences.

Posted by: Cupcake | Jul 17, 2017 12:07:36 PM

I haven't read the whole decision but I'm getting from it "they said life without parole didn't meet these goals but they never said we couldn't effectively give life without parole and call it something else"

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and it quacks like a duck...

Posted by: Laura | Jul 18, 2017 6:08:45 PM

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