Thursday, December 22, 2016

No life without parole for juveniles

Today the Court released its long-awaited decision in State v. Moore, which asked whether a juvenile can be sentenced to a term that exceeds his life expectancy for non-homicide offenses. The answer is no; the Court held that such a sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. The Moore appeal was accepted more than two and a half years ago, and argued more than a year and a half ago.

I haven't yet had time to digest the full opinion--it's 77 pages, and includes dissents from each of Justices Kennedy and French, and a concurrence from Chief Justice O'Connor and Justice Lanzinger--but generally it's an application of the US Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, and its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama. Graham had held that a mandatory sentence of life without parole imposed on a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense violated the Eighth Amendment. Miller extended the same rule to juveniles convicted of homicides.

What sets Moore apart from Graham and Miller is that Moore's sentence was not mandatory. Moore, who was 15 when he was convicted for a series of crimes including aggravated robbery, rape, and kidnapping, all with firearm specifications, was sentenced to 141 years in prison. While this wasn't a de jure "life without parole" sentence, it was a de facto life without parole sentence. Today the Court held that such a sentence was unconstitutional.

Surely there is more to be said about this holding in the future, but Justice Sharon Kennedy's dissent points out that at least four other states (Louisiana, Tennessee, Arizona, and Virginia) have held that Graham should be limited only to cases in which an actual mandatory life sentence has been imposed. Meanwhile (at least) California, Florida, Iowa, Connecticut, Illinois, and Wyoming have held that Graham extends to cases similar to Moore's. The US Supreme Court will have to address this divide at some point.

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