Monday, July 20, 2015
From Tracy L. Denholtz, a fellow in the Juvenile Sentencing Project at Quinnipiac University School of Law:
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment. Following Miller, a number of states have eliminated life without parole (“LWOP”) as a sentencing option for juveniles or have provided mechanisms for juveniles serving LWOP sentences to petition courts for resentencing. The 2015 legislative session resulted in three new states abolishing this extreme sentencing practice for juveniles:
- Connecticut passed a bill that retroactively eliminates LWOP as a sentencing option for all juveniles. Governor Malloy signed SB 796 on June 23, 2015. Under the new law, juveniles may no longer be convicted of capital felony, murder with special circumstances, or arson murder—offenses that carry mandatory LWOP sentences. Instead, the most serious offense for juveniles is now murder—which carries a minimum sentence of 25 years (with parole eligibility after 15 years) and a maximum sentence of 60 years (with parole eligibility after 30 years). The new law, which applies to juveniles currently serving sentences, provides that juveniles are eligible for parole after serving 60% of their sentence, or 12 years, whichever is greater. Those serving more than 50 years are eligible for parole after serving 30 years. Thus, the new law ensures parole hearings for all juveniles after serving no more than 30 years. The law also provides specific youth-related factors for the parole board to consider. Finally, the new law requires judges to consider the hallmark features of youth and the scientific differences between juveniles and adults when sentencing a juvenile in adult court for a serious crime. This new law will affect approximately 200 individuals currently serving sentences in Connecticut for offenses committed as juveniles. Students in Quinnipiac University School of Law’s Civil Justice Clinic testified before the legislature in support of the bill.
- Nevada passed a bill that eliminates LWOP for juveniles. Governor Sandoval signed AB 267 into law on May 26, 2015. The law provides that going forward, the maximum sentence available for juveniles sentenced in adult court is life with the possibility of parole. The law also provides retroactive parole eligibility rules for all juveniles (except those convicted of offenses that resulted in the death of two or more victims). Juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses are parole eligible after 15 years, and juveniles convicted of homicide offenses involving one victim are parole eligible after 20 years. Additionally, the law requires judges to consider the differences between juveniles and adults when sentencing a juvenile in adult court.
- Vermont passed a bill that eliminates sentences of LWOP for individuals who were under 18 at the time of the offense(s). Governor Shumlin signed H. 62 into law on May 14, 2015.
Connecticut, Nevada, and Vermont are the newest states to join a number of others that have eliminated juvenile LWOP sentences following Miller. In 2014, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and West Virginia enacted statutes abolishing juvenile LWOP. (In 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that juvenile LWOP violates the state constitution). In 2013, Delaware, Texas, and Wyoming passed laws abolishing this sentencing practice. Thus, since Miller was decided in 2012, a total of nine states have eliminated LWOP as a sentencing option for juveniles. With hope, this trend will continue.