The Louisiana Supreme Court today held that sentencing a child to a term of years that is the functional equivalent of life imprisonment without parole is unconstitutional. It is the latest in a growing number of state court decisions applying United States Supreme Court precedent barring almost all death-in-prison sentences for children.
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that sentencing a child under age 18 to life imprisonment without parole for an offense in which no one was killed violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court held that children have a greater capacity for change, and must be given a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
Two years later, the Court in Miller v. Alabama struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide. Sentencing a child to die in prison violates the Constitution, the Court ruled, in all but the rare case where there is proof that the child cannot be rehabilitated.
State courts have since applied the Supreme Court’s reasoning to sentences that, while not labeled “life without parole,” nonetheless condemn children to die in prison.
In 2012, the California Supreme Court unanimously struck down a sentence of 110-years-to-life imposed on a 16-year-old boy. Because it required him to serve more than 100 years before being eligible for parole, the sentence denied him the opportunity to “demonstrate growth and maturity” to earn his release, in violation of Graham.
In 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected the governor’s attempt to fix unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences by commuting them to life with parole after serving 60 years. The “unconstitutional imposition of a mandatory life-without-parole sentence is not fixed by substituting it with a sentence with parole that is the practical equivalent of a life sentence without parole,” the court wrote. “Oftentimes, it is important that the spirit of the law not be lost in the application of the law. This is one such time.”
Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court cited these and similar rulings from Wyoming and Indiana in striking down a mandatory sentence of 97 years imposed on 16-year-old Zachary Reyes. The court reasoned:
Such a lengthy sentence “means denial of hope; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial; it means that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of [the juvenile convict], he will remain in prison for the rest of his days.” . . . That is exactly the result that Miller held was unconstitutional.
Mr. Reyes would be required to serve 89 years before he would be eligible for release — at age 105. The court found that this sentence is a mandatory, de facto life-without-parole sentence and vacated the sentence as unconstitutional. It ordered a new sentencing hearing under Illinois’s new law, which would subject Mr. Reyes to a sentence of 32 years.
Today, the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the 99-year sentence imposed on Alden Morgan for an armed robbery at age 17. The court rejected the State’s argument that Graham applies only to sentences labeled “life,” writing that “because a juvenile nonhomicide offender has diminished culpability, a sentence which, based upon a judgment at the time of sentencing, bars him from ever re-entering society, is a grossly disproportionate punishment.”
Mr. Morgan would not become eligible for parole until age 101. Accordingly, the court found that his sentence is the functional equivalent of life without parole. It also ruled that legislation enacted to provide for parole after 30 years for juvenile nonhomicide offenders who were sentenced to life before Graham also applies to virtual life sentences. The court ordered the corrections department to designate Mr. Morgan as parole eligible and set a date for a parole hearing.
With this decision, Louisiana joins the growing consensus of state courts taking a realistic approach to constitutional sentences for children by requiring new sentences that actually provide a meaningful opportunity for release once the child has matured and rehabilitated. While some sentencing judges responded to Graham and Miller by replacing life-without-parole sentences with sentences requiring 60, 90, or even 175 years before any possibility of release, those sentences consistently have been reversed on appeal, as state appeals courts recognize that simply changing the label is “arbitrary and baseless,” and does not comply with the Eighth Amendment’s recognition that children are inherently capable of redemption.