Ours is the only country in the world where children serve life in prison.
The number of states that ban life sentences for children has tripled in the last five years, however, as noted in a new report published by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY).
The report asserts this trend is due to growing recognition that decency demands children not be sentenced to die in prison, even for the most harmful offenses.
Since 2013, three states per year have eliminated life sentences as a sentencing option for children. The total number of states banning life sentences is now 17.
The quick legislative reforms were triggered in large part by a 2010 Jacksonville case, Graham v. Florida.
In Graham, the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment disallows sentences of life in prison for children convicted of non-homicide offenses without “some meaningful opportunity” for future release.
The court concluded that criminal procedure laws are flawed if they presume juvenile offenders cannot be rehabilitated.
Graham was followed by Miller v. Alabama in 2012, which addressed the imposition of life in prison for children convicted of homicide.
The Supreme Court did not completely bar life sentences in Miller, but stated that a court must “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”
The CFSY report points out not only the exceptional pace of the recent legislative reforms, but also the diversity.
Change has come in every region in the country and from states that span the political spectrum. Red states Utah and Wyoming have passed laws against life sentences for children, as have blue states Connecticut and Delaware.
Prosecuting attorneys from Utah and Hawaii also voiced support for the reforms in the CFSY report.
The majority of children sentenced to life in prison are concentrated in five states: Florida, California, Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.
Maine, New Mexico and Rhode Island have never imposed a life sentence on a child.
Legislation banning life sentences has passed in several states with little to no opposition. In five states, the legislation passed one chamber unanimously.
The Nevada law passed through both legislative chambers unanimously.
Nevada Assembly Speaker and Republican John Hambrick commented in the CSFY report that “redemption is a basic tenet of nearly every religion. When we sentence a child to die in prison, we forestall the possibility that he or she can change and find redemption.”
Florida made legislative changes in 2014, but still allows life sentences for children in some cases.
Florida allows life sentences for children who kill, intend to kill or attempt to kill if the sentencing court finds that life imprisonment is an appropriate sentence.
For capital felonies, a sentencing court can sentence a child to no less than 40 years in prison. The child may apply for a sentence review after 25 years as long as the child did not have a prior conviction for a serious felony unconnected to the homicide offense.
If the court finds at a review hearing the juvenile has been rehabilitated and is believed to be fit to re-enter society, it may modify the sentence.
CFSY is a national coalition that seeks to bring a nationwide end to the practice of sentencing children to die in prison.
Executive Director Jody Kent Lavy said, “Sentencing children to die in prison declares them irredeemable, defining their lives based on their worst mistakes. All children — even those convicted of the most serious crimes — are different from adults and should be held accountable for harm they have caused in age-appropriate ways.”
With 33 remaining states that allow life sentences for some children, keep an eye on whether the trend continues.
Brian Coughlin is a director with The Bedell Firm.
Graham v. Florida
The case: Terrance J. Graham of Jacksonville was 16 when he was convicted in 2003 for armed burglary and attempted armed robbery. He served one year.
Six months later, Graham was arrested for armed home robbery and, in 2006, sentenced to life without parole.
State appeal: Graham’s attorney argued a life sentence without parole for a juvenile constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which violates the Eighth Amendment. A Florida appellate court disagreed.
Federal appeal: In May 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that life without parole for a juvenile convicted in a non-homicide case violated the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.
Resentencing: In February 2012, Graham’s life sentence was reduced to 25 years. He is scheduled to be released in October 2026.
Miller v. Alabama
The case: In July 2003, 14-year-old Evan Miller and another suspect were arrested for killing a man by beating him with a baseball bat and leaving him inside a trailer, which was set on fire.
Miller was tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
State appeal: Miller sought a new trial, arguing the sentencing constituted cruel and unusual punishment, which violates the Eighth Amendment.
The trial judge denied the request and that decision was affirmed by an Alabama appellate court. The Alabama Supreme Court let the lower court’s ruling stand.
Federal appeal: Miller’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court had a companion case involving three 14-year-old boys from Arkansas, who were convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery in July 2003.
The case was appealed by one of the defendants on the grounds the sentence was unusual and excessive, which violated his rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments.
In June 2012, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision reversed the Alabama and Arkansas rulings and remanded the cases.
Resentencing: Miller was scheduled to be resentenced in June, but that was delayed.