Legal Highlights: Lengthy and 'de facto life' sentences for children

The first few months of 2018 have seen a number of cases from state appellate courts on issues surrounding juvenile sentencing, many of them addressing lengthy or de facto life without parole sentences. Here are a few highlights from these recent opinions:

On March 9th, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a 25-life sentence for a teenager convicted of homicide, continuing a long line of cases recognizing that kids are fundamentally different from adults and that the justice system should take their youth into account. In State v. Zarate, the court reaffirmed its prior holding that the vast majority of children should never be parole ineligible. In this case, it found that the sentencing court “allowed the circumstances of the offense to overwhelm its analysis” and that the judge had an improper predisposition to sentence Zarate to a mandatory minimum.

In a concurring opinion, one of the justices argued that because scientists have found that “the character of a juvenile offender is still being formed until the offender ages into the mid-twenties,” minimum sentences without parole eligibility “may constitutionally extend only as necessary to ensure complete character formation.” If at that point an offender can demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation, keeping them in prison “for purposes of incapacitation beyond that period is a purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering.” The opinion went on to say that because predicting the future and rehabilitation prospects of a child is “not possible with any degree of accuracy,” the constitutional approach is to abolish all mandatory minimum sentences for children and instead “allow the parole board to make periodic judgments as to whether a child offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation based on an observable track record.”

In People v. Contreras, the Supreme Court of California overturned a 50-life sentence for a teenager who committed a non-homicide offense, finding the sentence unconstitutional under Graham v. Florida. The court reasoned that while the sentence does not completely foreclose the possibility of release before the end of the average person’s expected lifespan,Graham contemplated more than a short time outside of prison prior to death, but rather “a sufficient period to achieve reintegration as a productive and respected member of the citizenry.” As a prison term allowing for no possibility of release until well after age 60 would not allow for this reintegration, the court found that the sentence violated the 8th Amendment and sent the case back to the lower court for resentencing.

Finally, in New Mexico, the state’s highest court recently cited to the work of the CFSY in holding that Graham v. Florida’s requirement that youth convicted of non-homicide crimes be afforded a “meaningful opportunity for release” applies to lengthy term-of-years sentences for multiple offenses. Citing the remarks of James Dold, CFSY Advocacy Director, during a hearing on behalf of legislation which later banned JLWOP in Nevada, the court called on the New Mexico legislature to adopt legislation providing a parole eligibility timeline for children.