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Spotlight on juvenile life without parole

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Spotlight on juvenile life without parole


Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

Our focus today is on juvenile life without parole sentences. Yesterday, California became the 20th state to ban JLWOP. Washington could become the next state to eliminate JLWOP, as the question of the constitutionality of the sentence is now pending before the state supreme court. In the states that retain JLWOP, resentencing hearings continue to take place after the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory JLWOP sentences back in 2012. In Pennsylvania, over 70 of these former lifers have been released. Meanwhile, in a handful of places like Baton Rouge and Detroit, prosecutors continue to push for these death-in-prison sentences.


Juvenile brains are not fully developed, which leads to comparatively poor judgment and impulse control, and greater susceptibility to situational forces and peer pressure. Over the past decade, courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have acknowledged that for these reasons children are not as culpable as adults, and that sentencing decisions should acknowledge the immense capacity that juveniles have for change. For example, juveniles convicted of a homicide offense cannot be automatically sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but instead must be found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

California Bans JLWOP. Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that eliminates juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in the nation’s most populous state. California is the 14th state to end JLWOP in the past five years (and the 20th state overall to do so). The law applies retroactively, meaning that over 300 people sentenced to die in prison for a crime committed before the age of 18 are eligible for parole after their 25th year of incarceration. This is not an automatic release provision, but instead provides the hope of release for those who can demonstrate adequate maturity and growth. [Christopher Cadelago / Sacramento Bee] The JLWOP ban is part of a package of nine juvenile justice reforms that the Governor signed into law yesterday. [Jazmine Ulloa / Los Angeles Times]

The Constitutionality of JLWOP is Now Before the Washington Supreme Court.Earlier this year, an intermediate appellate court in Washington heldthat JLWOP violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. [Opinion in State of Washington v. Brian Bassett] As evidence that the punishment is an excessive one, the appellate court noted that the United States is the only country in the world to permit JLWOP. It also found convincing the “recent proliferation of legislative decisions to ban juvenile life without parole sentences.”

The prosecution appealed the ruling, and last week, the Washington Supreme Court agreed to review the case. [Washington Supreme Court Order List] Sara Jean Green from the Seattle Times wrote a comprehensive piece on the Bassett decision. [Sara Jean Green / Seattle TimesSee also As discussed in our specialU.S. Supreme Court edition of the newsletter, Johnson v. Idaho, a case challenging the constitutionality of JLWOP, is among the petitions pending review at the Supreme Court this Fall. The Fair Punishment Project filed a friend of the Court brief in the case. [Amicus Brief of the Fair Punishment Project]

A Round-up of Recent Juvenile Life Without Parole Cases.

  • When he was 14-years-old, Gregory Sourbeer shot and killed his mother. That was in 1976, back when Gerald Ford was President of the United States. On October 6th, a judge in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, re-sentenced Sourbeer to provide parole eligibility after 25 years, making him immediately parole eligible. His case will proceed to the state’s parole board. [Jonas Fortune / Lancaster Online] As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed reported last month, 70 of Pennsylvania’s over 500 juvenile lifers have already been resentenced and released since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision barring mandatory JLWOP. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer]
  • Hillar Moore, the elected District Attorney of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has called himself “a progressive DA,” and he’s been invited to attend prosecutorial reform events at the Obama White House and the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. [Jessica Pishko / Slate] Yet, while the nation continues to abandon JLWOP sentences, Moore is pressing for a death-in-prison sentence for Montreal Jackson, who at 16-years-old killed a man after a struggle ensued when Jackson tried to steal the man’s bicycle. Jackson recently had a resentencing hearing because his 2001 mandatory JLWOP sentence is unconstitutional. The judge is expected to rule on whether Jackson should be parole eligible later this month. A prosecutor in Moore’s office told the judge that Montreal Jackson is “clearly irreparably corrupt.” [Joe Gyan / The Advocate]
  • In Detroit, Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy, had asked a judge to reissue a life without parole sentence for a man who has served over 40 years in prison after being convicted of murder at the age of 17. The man, Charles Lewis, contends that he is innocent and that transcripts of his alibi witness are in his official court file, which has been lost or destroyed. Efforts to “re-create” the file are now two years in the making. While the prosecution wants Lewis’ JLWOP sentence reinstated, the defense is asking that Lewis be released on bond until a final ruling is made. [Diane Bukowski / Voice of Detroit] For more detail on the Lewis case, and a great overview of the current state of juvenile life without parole sentencing, read Jessica Pishko’s recent article in The Nation. [Jessica Pishko / The Nation]