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The complexity of juvenile life without parole sentences


In a case that could affect a number of Missouri cases, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether its rulings related to juvenile sentencing should have a retroactive effect on cases involving juveniles who were sentenced under automatic rules to life in prison without parole.

Missouri has struggled to change its sentencing laws to comply with a series of Supreme Court cases and if the case before the court gives Miller v. Alabama retroactive effect, inmates in dozens of Missouri cases will have to receive resentencing.


The Miller case prohibited automatic life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles and Montgomery case could decide if Miller will apply to all cases where the sentencing was final prior to the Miller decision in 2012.

The life without parole for juveniles became an issue in the 1990s when the media hysteria drove the creation of "superpredators" and a demand for draconian punishment. Research and experience have shown that this was wrong and not an accurate assessment of juvenile behavior. Most states have reduced or eliminated the use of LWOP sentences. Missouri has yet to amend its statutes.

There is the added complexity in Montgomery whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide the issue, because it arose from a state court case and not from the federal courts. This jurisdiction issue is important, but separate from the issue of retroactive application of Miller, and could derail a ruling if the Court determines it does not have jurisdiction.

While some of those involved in the cases in Missouri are concerned about the potential of resentencing of some of the offenders, if resentencing is required, it does not imply that any of these men will be released.

Missouri's current murder statute remains unconstitutional under Miller and the legislature needs to address this, but has failed to resolve this issue. The topic is complex because LWOP is very expensive for the state because these inmates will grow old in prison and their healthcare costs will exponentially increase as they age.

In addition, it is mixed with difficult issues of rehabilitation and retribution. Victim's families never want them released. Additionally, after 30 or 40 years in prison, how could they earn a living? Who would hire a 50-year-old former prisoner who has never worked outside a prison?


Source: stltoday.com, "Juvenile life terms still up in air after court case," Jennifer S. Mann, October 18, 2015

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