Md. to re-examine life sentences for juveniles

Officials in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender are trying to make sure convicts who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles receive a resentencing hearing pursuant to a US Supreme Court ruling, the Daily Record reports.

In a 2010 case, known as Graham v Florida, the Supreme Court banned life sentences that included no “meaningful opportunity” for release in cases where juveniles were convicted of crimes that didn’t involve homicide.

And in a 2012 ruling in the case of Miller v Alabama, the Supreme Court barred “mandatory” life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. They can still be sentenced to life, as long as judges consider criteria such as the defendant’s maturity and the nature of the crimes before they impose a life sentence.

These decisions are making their way through other criminal courts across the country at this time, so no new life sentences are being handed out that don’t comply with the guidelines those two rulings established. But because the rulings represented a far-reaching and profound change to the way juveniles had to be sentenced, many state legislatures and courts have been applying the guidelines retroactively.

Since the juvenile offenders have already been sentenced, though, they have to be brought back before a judge who can then apply the new guidelines and reconsider the sentencing in their cases in accordance with the new interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.

Defense attorneys are standing up for their clients, but the shear volume of juveniles who received life sentences but were represented by a public defender has caused a bit of a backlog, as states try to ensure none of the sentences handed out in the past violated the offenders’ Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The patent unfairness of depriving indistinguishable juvenile offenders of their liberty for the rest of their lives, based solely on when their cases were decided, weighs heavily in favor of applying the Supreme Court’s decision … retroactively,” Justice Barbara Pariente of the Florida Supreme Court was quoted as writing in a unanimous opinion of that court that ordered a lower court to consider a new sentence for a person convicted of murder and serving a life term.

The new guidelines are “definitely a victory for child advocates who’ve been asking to get the Graham decision implemented in a widespread fashion,” CBS News quoted a Florida public defender as saying.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.