States React with Hearings, Orders on U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Life Sentences

Just after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated some 2,400 life sentences given to juveniles nationwide, Iowa’s governor responded with commuting the 38 cases in his state to minimum 60-year sentences.

The response was different in Pennsylvania, where the state Legislature is speeding to comply with the court’s Miller v. Alabama order for judicial discretion.

“First degree murder is an intentional and premeditated crime and those who are found guilty are dangerous and should be kept off the streets and out of our communities,” reads a statement by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, issued Jul. 18. It came with his Executive Order commuting mandatory life without parole sentences handed to 38 Iowa juveniles to 60 mandatory years then a possibility of parole.

The order is in reaction to the Supreme Court’s June ruling that juvenile murder defendants have to be allowed to present mitigating circumstances, especially age, to sentencing judges. That means automatic juvenile murder sentences are out in the federal courts plus the 28 states that have them, and judge’s discretion is in.

But some of Iowa’s legislators want to make sure there’s still a floor for such sentences. Earlier this year in light of the imminent Miller decision, the state House passed House File 607. It said juveniles convicted of the most grave felonies would be given a mandatory term of between 30 and 45 years before a chance at parole, rather than a life sentence.

The state Senate failed to act before the session ended.

In Pennsylvania, where some 440 people are serving life without parole for juvenile crimes, the Legislature immediately started acting to give judges the discretion that Miller requires.

Their state Senate Judiciary Committee has already started hearings that may end in a bill to replace the now-unconstitutional sentencing law with some other guideline.

Pennsylvania activist Anita Colon said that it’s too soon to tell if the new bill will lean toward leniency or hard time.

Her own brother was convicted as a 16-year-old for murder because he was the lookout for a drug deal that went bad and ended with an adult gang member murdering a woman.

Colon expects life without parole to be totally “taken off the books” for cases like her brother’s, when the defendant was an accessory, not the actual killer.

“We’re hoping to develop a sentencing structure that is cognizant of that (youth and other mitigating circumstances) but recognizes the level of safety we need in communities and also loss to victims’ families,” she said. Colon thinks the eventual new law will probably impose “very harsh sentences where warranted, but there will be a range” of punishments.

The Pennsylvania state Legislature reconvenes in September.

Colorado abolished its juvenile life without parole mandatory sentence in 2006. A pair of attorneys there think Miller will be deployed in cases where juveniles were not given life, but were given very long sentences like the ones Iowa’s governor wants.

“I would think any attorney worth his salt would appeal a very long sentence meted out to a juvenile,” said attorney and state Rep. Daniel Kagan (D-Englewood), “on the grounds juveniles are different.” They’re more impulsive, their brains are still developing, he noted.

Kagan thinks Miller seems to put both life and long-term sentences into question. But “whether it flies,” he said, will only be told by litigation.

Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett agrees. “The (Supreme Court) holding is binding on Colorado,” he said.  But the justices’ reasons are not. “The arguments may or may not be persuasive, but that’s always the case.”

Meanwhile, there are still 48 Colorado inmates who were sentenced under the old juvenile life without parole sentence. It’s not yet clear where or how they will go through the appeals process now open to them under Miller, said Garnett. There are several possibilities including a visit to the Colorado Governor’s Juvenile Clemency Board.

But, he added, DAs are concerned to find a way “that doesn’t put victims through a whole reprocessing of the case.”


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