West Virginia eliminates life without parole for children

West Virginia has eliminated the practice of sentencing children to die in prison. Every child convicted and sentenced in adult court will be eligible for parole no later than after serving 15 years. With this new law, West Virginia is among a growing number of U.S. states that have either abandoned this sentence or severely limited its use. The U.S. is the only country in the world that imposes this sentence upon children.

“We applaud West Virginia for responding in a meaningful way to the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that children are ‘constitutionally different’ from adults and should not be subject to our nation’s harshest punishments,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director & national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “This new law ensures young people are held accountable for harm they have caused in a way that accounts for their unique characteristics as children and offers them hope of a second chance.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed HB 4210 into law on Friday. The bill passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in the House of Delegates and unanimously in the Senate.

“This bill demonstrates that we take seriously our responsibility of caring for young people and for making sure our communities are safe,” said Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Under HB 4210, children who are convicted of serious crimes will be held accountable for their actions. However, they will also be given a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate later in life that they have been rehabilitated and deserve a second chance. This bill represents our understanding that children are different from adults and that our courts need to take these differences into account when dealing with children.  It is also sound fiscal policy for West Virginia, allowing us to maintain public safety while ensuring that we make the best use of our state’s limited financial resources.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as children. It also requires that sentencing authorities consider specific factors when children face the possibility of these sentences. Drawing on this guidance, HB 4210 requires the consideration of 15 specific factors when determining the appropriate sentence for a child convicted of a serious crime. Among these are the child’s age, role in the crime, intellectual capacity, history of trauma, family background and potential for rehabilitation.

HB 4210 will provide children with several opportunities to be considered for review and release. If parole is not granted at 15 years, review is available again every year for children who receive sentences short of a life term and every three years for children sentenced to life with parole in prison.

The United States Supreme Court, in three rulings during the past decade, has scaled back the use of extreme sentences for children. Policymakers throughout the country, opinion leaders as diverse as President Jimmy Carter and Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and editorial boards at the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and elsewhere have voiced their support for reform. When imposed upon children, life without parole is a violation of Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which expressly forbids life without parole sentences for children.