Ohio Supreme Court Strikes Down “Functional Life Sentences” for Children


Brandon Moore

The Ohio Supreme Court recently joined a growing consensus when it struck down the 112-year sentence imposed on 15-year-old Brandon Moore as the “functional equivalent” of life imprisonment without parole, which cannot be imposed on children convicted of nonhomicide crimes.

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court decided in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutionally excessive to sentence a child to die in prison for a nonhomicide crime. Because children are especially capable of change, the Court ruled that sentences for juveniles must provide a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The Court later extended that reasoning and “has all but abolished life-without-parole sentences even for those juveniles who commit homicide.”

Brandon Moore was 15 years old when he was arrested with three older men and charged with multiple counts of kidnapping, rape, and robbery. He was convicted and sentenced to 141 years in prison, which was later reduced to 112 years. That sentence required him to serve 77 years before becoming eligible for release, at 92 years old — well past his life expectancy.

“It does not take an entire lifetime for a juvenile offender to earn a first chance to demonstrate that he is not irredeemable,” the Ohio Supreme Court wrote. Moore’s sentence violates Graham, the court held, because it denies him the “opportunity to seek release while it is still meaningful.” It concluded:

The sentence imposed on Moore is functionally a life sentence. We see no significant difference between a sentence of life imprisonment without parole and a term-of-years prison sentence that would extend beyond the defendant’s expected lifespan before the possibility of parole. The court in Graham was not barring a terminology—“life without parole”—but rather a punishment that removes a juvenile from society without a meaningful chance to demonstrate rehabilitation and obtain release. The state may not impose at the outset its harshest sentences on a person with twice-diminished moral culpability.

The court rejected the State’s argument that Graham is limited to juveniles who commit a single nonhomicide offense, finding that the “number of offenses committed cannot overshadow the fact that it is a child who has committed them.”

It further noted that it was joining ranks with California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, and Wyoming, where state high courts have held that there is no difference between life-without-parole sentences and term-of-years sentences that provide no meaningful opportunity for release within the juvenile’s expected lifespan.

In a second case decided the same day, State v. Aalim, the court struck down an Ohio law that makes transfer to adult court mandatory for children 16 or older in specific circumstances. By precluding a juvenile court judge from taking any individual circumstances into account before automatically sending a child to adult court, the law disregards the United States Supreme Court’s clear instruction that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” The court held that due process requires that all children have the right to a hearing before transfer to adult court.