This week, North Dakota joined 18 other states and the District of Columbia in banning death-in-prison sentences for children.
House Bill No. 1195 passed the state legislature unanimously on April 7 and the governor signed it into law on Monday. Under the new law, individuals sentenced as children to lengthy prison terms are entitled to have their sentences reviewed by judges after they have served 20 years.
“Kids can and do grow up; and as they develop, they change. None of us are the same at 50 as we were at 16,” said Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Nationwide, some 3000 children have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Children as young as 13 have been tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison, typically without any consideration of their age or circumstances of the offense. EJI argued in the United States Supreme Court that death-in-prison sentences imposed on children are unconstitutional, and in 2010, the Court banned death-in-prison sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes because of “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change.” In 2012, EJI returned to the Court and argued that sentencing children to die in prison for any crime is cruel and unusual punishment, because children’s unique immaturity, impulsiveness, vulnerability, and capacity for redemption and rehabilitation are not crime-specific. On June 25, 2012, the Court issued an historic ruling in Miller v. Alabama holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional.
Since the Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in Miller, the number of states and jurisdictions that ban the practice has quadrupled. Arkansas, Texas, Utah, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nevada, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Alaska, West Virginia, Colorado, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia have eliminated the sentence of life without parole for children.