Between hope and despair, waiting for meaningful implementation of Miller v. Alabama

By Marsha Levick, Jody Kent Lavy, and Ashley Nellis
June 24, 2014

Joe Ligon is a 75-year-old inmate who was condemned to die in a prison in Philadelphia over six decades ago for a murder he witnessed, but did not commit. With no disciplinary infractions and serious health issues, including cancer, he is a gentle man whose continued confinement aptly illustrates the insanity of these extreme sentencing practices.

Two years ago, we thought Joe and the thousands of others like him might have some hope. On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole upon a juvenile (JLWOP). The ruling immediately voided sentencing laws in 28 states, where approximately 2,100 individuals were serving a mandatory life without parole sentence for murder committed before they turned 18. Another 400+ youth are serving discretionary life sentences across the country. While the opinion did not impose a complete ban on life without parole for young offenders, Justice Kagan was blunt in her critique, writing that future imposition of JLWOP should be rare and uncommon. Justice Kagan further articulated a specific list of factors for consideration by any sentencer, including youthfulness, before condemning a child to die in prison.

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