Legislative session brings movement closer to eliminating JLWOP

As we reach the end of most state legislative sessions and the mid-point of 2015, I am thrilled to report on several important victories in our effort to abolish life sentences for children.

Three states – Connecticut, Nevada, and Vermont – eliminated the sentence this year. That brings to nine the number of states that have taken this important step since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole for crimes committed by a person younger than 18. Perhaps more importantly, this demonstrates the incredible momentum we are fostering. In the last three years, we have nearly tripled the number of states that ban these extreme sentences.

In several of these states, the impacts of the new laws extend beyond those sentenced to life without parole to include hundreds of other young people serving time in adult prisons. As a result of legislation passed this year alone, hundreds of people sentenced as children for a variety of crimes are eligible for relief.

These are significant milestones, and we are aware that with every successful reform come challenges to ensure the new laws are meaningfully implemented. Therefore, in Nevada, for example, we are working with the Federal Public Defender to coordinate legal representation for those previously told they would die in prison and who are now eligible for release if approved by the parole board.

We also are partnering with litigators in preparation for Montgomery v. Louisiana, which the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear this fall. It is expected to determine whether Miller must be applied retroactively. To date, most state supreme courts that have taken up this issue have held that youth sentenced before the Miller decision are entitled to review consideration. But as long as there is no consistent rule nationally, the state where a child was sentenced remains a major determinant of whether he or she will remain sentenced to die in prison.

We are serving as the national resource for lawyers representing clients who are preparing for resentencings and those representing clients facing these extreme sentences in an effort to achieve the best outcomes possible for young people. Earlier this year, the Campaign published the first-ever guidelines for legal representation of children who face life sentences. The guidelines, which draw from the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases, set forth a national standard of practice to ensure zealous, constitutionally effective representation consistent with the standards set forth in Miller.

The guidelines have been endorsed by more than 50 organizations, including the leading defense organizations and some of the largest public defender offices throughout the country. We are now helping as these entities work to adopt state-specific guidelines and train attorneys, with the goal of better equipping them for these cases and, ultimately, more positive outcomes for our children.

And it remains a major priority to change the narrative about youth who have been sent to prison for serious crimes. We do this primarily through our public education efforts and through our participation in conferences and other events. We have presented at seven conferences this year.  CFSY staff have presented before judges, advocates, pro bono attorneys, faith communities and even the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Thank you for your support in help in making all of this possible. As you can see, it is crucial that we continue to work alongside one another to accomplish our goals of fair sentencing for youth. And, of course, we could do none of this without your generous financial support.

Much work lies ahead as we work to protect these wins and strive for more. We must keep the momentum going. Our work has brought hope to so many and we are committed to ensuring that it isn’t stripped away from them again.