States Begin Reacting to Ban on Juvenile Life Without Parole

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“The court's ruling does not prohibit stern sentences for juveniles who commit violent crimes, and I fully expect the offender in this case be resentenced to a very long term in prison” – Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, June 2010,  on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Florida, which banned states from issuing life without parole sentences to juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

“I hope states take a sensible approach,” and review sentences “at a point in time when the juvenile has matured. It doesn’t make sense to wait [for parole hearings] until they’re 80 or 85.” – Bryan Gowdy, June 2010, the attorney for Terrance Graham in the Supreme Court case.

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When the Graham ruling came down, it seemed evident that the high court had left itself open on two fronts to further attention on the issue of juvenile life without parole (LWOP).

First, it was almost certain that juveniles who were sentenced to LWOP on homicide charges would use Graham to challenge their sentences. That process has already begun in some states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Second, some contention over what constituted a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” which is what the court said states must offer in lieu of LWOP. The vague phrasing was cited in a New York Times article this week that reported on what some perceive to be a lack of clarity in decisions rendered by the Roberts Court.

It would appear that contention is about to ensue. 

The Graham ruling banned life without parole for juveniles, but set no definitive line on what constituted a “meaningful opportunity” to obtain parole. Juvenile advocates followed the court’s lead and mostly refused to suggest a highest tolerable amount of time before a parole hearing, out of fear that such a suggested ceiling would immediately become a norm. They would like to see states offer parole early in the life sentence of a juvenile. (Read the third entry here for more on that).

So states could no longer slap a life sentence on a juvenile and not offer parole. But could they instead impose a 90-year sentence? Or a 75-year sentence? Or four consecutive 25-year sentences?

Strictly speaking, those wouldn’t guarantee a whole lifetime in prison for a juvenile offender. But it could be viewed, as Florida attorney Bryan Gowdy described to Youth Today over the summer, as the “functional equivalent” of life without parole.

States that try to substitute something like that for LWOP, Gowdy said in June, “will be facing challenges from people like me.”

It looks like he and other attorneys are going to have that chance. An excellent article by Herald-Tribune reporter Lloyd Dunkelberger cites a number of examples where Florida judges have already sentenced (or re-sentenced) to terms that would fall into Gowdy’s “functional equivalent” category.

Examples from Dunkelberger’s article:

- In Hillsborough County, a defendant, who was 13 at the time he was involved in a series of robberies and rapes, received a new 65-year sentence that will have to be served after another 27-year sentence for a separate crime.

- In Jacksonville, a youth received a new 50-year sentence for his part in an armed robbery and shooting that left a victim paralyzed.

-In Orlando, a prisoner – who was 17 at the time he raped and robbed a woman – represented himself in court and received 90 years in consecutive sentences.

Florida has no parole system at the moment, so each of those sentences will be served in full.

“Florida is a big problem state because they’ve dismantled parole,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is representing a number of inmates who are seeking re-sentencing under Graham. Indeed, Florida is home to about 116 of the estimated 200 people doing LWOP sentences for non-homicides they committed as juveniles.

In Stevenson’s mind, it is too early to tell if the prevailing response of judges is going to be replacing LWOP with “functional LWOP.” He expects re-sentencing in the next six weeks in Graham-related appeals that EJI is handling, in a number of states, and that will serve as an early indicator.

One recent appeal in California also indicated that some courts may embrace the spirit of Graham. Victor Mendez based his appeal of an 84-year sentence on Graham, saying his sentence was “materially indistinguishable” from an LWOP sentence.

The California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District decided that Mendez was technically not covered by Graham – because he didn’t actually receive an LWOP sentence – and still felt “guided by the principles set forth in Graham in evaluating Mendez‘s claim that his sentence is cruel and unusual.” The court remanded Mendez’s case back for re-sentencing.

And even though some Florida judges are presently handing out lengthy terms, a bill that will be introduced in the next state legislature would mandate parole for juvenile convicts after 25 years. The bill has already gained the support of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.