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States Adopt Sentencing Changes Following Supreme Court Ruling on Juvenile Lifers

States Adopt Sentencing Changes Following Supreme Court Ruling on Juvenile Lifers


A wave of legal maneuvering is sweeping across the nation due to a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding juveniles serving mandatory sentences of life without parole, and a number of states have taken action as a result of the ruling.

The high court held in June 2012 that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-4 decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012) overturned life sentences imposed on two defendants who were 14 years old at the time they were convicted of murder.

The Supreme Court found that juvenile defendants can not be treated the same as adults for sentencing purposes because they are cognitively different, citing their “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” The ruling was expected to affect around 2,000 prisoners nationwide.

Just weeks after the Miller decision, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad announced that he would commute life-without-parole sentences for 38 Iowa juvenile lifers, only to make them ineligible for parole until they have served at least 60 years in prison.

“Justice,” Branstad said, “is a balance, and these commutations ensure that justice is balanced with punishment for those vicious crimes and taking into account public safety.”

However, an Iowa district court overturned the governor’s commutation in the first legal challenge filed by one of the affected prisoners. After hearing testimony in the case of Jeffrey K. Ragland, 44, who was 17 years old when sentenced to life without parole, the court held that Governor Branstad had exceeded his authority because his commutation did not allow for the individualized sentencing required by Miller, thus depriving Ragland of a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate his maturity and potential for rehabilitation.

The district court then re-sentenced Ragland to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years, making him immediately eligible for parole. The court also affirmed that a sentence of life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment as applied to Ragland, and criticized Branstad’s commutation as being outside the intent of state law, which makes juveniles convicted of Class A felonies eligible for parole after 25 years.

The state challenged the re-sentencing order, but the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the district court in August 2013 and pulled no punches in condemning Governor Branstad’s actions.

“The sentence served by Ragland, as commuted, still amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution,” the state Supreme Court held. “Consequently, the district court properly resentenced Ragland.”

Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins took further aim at Branstad: “In this situation, is the Governor commuting a void sentence or sentencing the defendant for the first time in violation of the separation of powers doctrine?” he asked in a concurring opinion.

“Another observation is that the Governor’s imposition of a sentence might constitute a denial of due process – such as the right to present evidence at the sentence stage ... or the right to be informed of accusations, the right to a jury trial, the right to compulsory process, and the right to counsel under ... the Iowa Constitution,” Wiggins continued. See: State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107 (Iowa 2013).

In a separate ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court held that a 75-year sentence imposed on a juvenile defendant convicted of murder was subject to the limitations of Miller, even though it was not a sentence of life without parole.

“We conclude that Miller’s principles are fully applicable to a lengthy term-of-years sentence as was imposed in this case because an offender sentenced to a lengthy term-of-years sentence should not be worse off than an offender sentenced to life in prison without parole who has the benefit of an individualized hearing under Miller,” the Court wrote. See: State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41 (Iowa 2013).

Further, in a third case, the state Supreme Court found that Miller should be applied to a juvenile defendant sentenced to a mandatory fixed-term sentence in a non-homicide case. See: State v. Pearson, 836 N.W.2d 88 (Iowa 2013).

In Miller, the Supreme Court held that all pertinent factors, including age, education, life experiences and home environment, must be considered when judges impose sentences on defendants convicted of committing murder as juveniles.

Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and an instructor at Yale Law School, said at the very least, Branstad’s decision to issue commutations mandating 60-year sentences was poor public policy.

“The main point of the Miller decision – and the main concern of any sentencing – should be individualized sentencing based on factors about each human being,” Bright said. “Obviously, nothing about any of the 38 individuals [Iowa prisoners convicted of murder as juveniles] was taken into account, just as it was not when they were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.”

One of the Iowa lifers to have their sentences commuted, David Epps, was convicted of a burglary-murder when he was 16. Due to Branstad’s commutation imposing a 60-year sentence, Epps, now 48, would not be eligible for parole until his mid-70s.

“I was thinking he was going to get some kind of release because he served 32 years on a life sentence,” said David’s brother, Dennis Epps. “[Branstad] might as well have left them serving a life sentence, because that’s pretty much what that is.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU announced its opposition to three bills introduced in the Iowa legislature in support of the governor’s commutations. All three would allow judges to sentence juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to life without parole, or – at the judge’s discretion – to a mandatory minimum sentence that critics argue would not provide such offenders with a meaningful second chance.

The mandatory minimum sentence varies with the proposed legislation; a Senate bill (SSB 1089) would require a 45-year minimum, while in the House, one measure (HSB 105) proposes 50 years and a second (HSB 33) proposes 60 years. Juveniles convicted of murder in Iowa can still be sentenced to life without parole based on an individual determination by the trial court.

Juvenile lifers are facing similar situations in several other states, according to Drexel University law professor Dan Filler, who said the Miller ruling did not make clear whether it is to be applied retroactively to prisoners convicted as juveniles who are already serving life-without-parole sentences.

“When you look at the decision closely, it implicitly leaves room for exactly what the governor of Iowa did,” said Filler. “It doesn’t give us any guidance. You have to see this decision as entirely cloudy. Different states are going to do different things.”

Around half the states currently allow life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

In Florida, the courts have done effectively the same thing as Governor Branstad in response to Miller. In some cases, Florida judges have re-sentenced juvenile lifers to 70- to 90-year prison terms. Michigan has adopted a similar response, with courts imposing sentences of 25 to 60 years rather than mandatory sentences of life without parole – although prosecutors can still request life sentences.

In Alabama, where the Miller case originated, state officials remain defiant.

“It is the [Alabama] Attorney General’s position that this rule does not apply retroactively,” said John C. Neiman Jr., the state’s solicitor general. “Ultimately, whether it will apply retroactively is going to be a question that will be litigated in, and decided by, the courts.”

Some states, however, have taken action in the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, and five have abolished life-without-parole sentences for all juvenile offenders.

In North Carolina, juvenile lifers are now eligible for parole review after serving 25 years following a statutory amendment that also requires judges to consider factors such as their age, immaturity, intellectual capacity, mental health history and the influence of familial or peer pressure when imposing sentences.

Texas’ highest court for criminal cases, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, held on March 12, 2014 that Miller applied retroactively to juveniles convicted of murder and sentenced to mandatory life without parole. The Court noted that judges must consider “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” See: Ex parte Maxwell, 2014 Tex. Crim. App. LEXIS 264 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).

Similarly, the Illinois Supreme Court held in March 2014 that Miller is to be applied retroactively – a decision that will affect around 100 Illinois prisoners currently serving life without parole. See: People v. Davis, 2014 IL 115595 (Ill. 2014).

On March 28, 2014, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill that ensures juveniles sentenced as adults will be eligible for parole after 15 years, including those serving life sentences. The legislation also requires courts to consider more than a dozen factors when sentencing juveniles convicted of serious crimes, including their age, family background and likelihood of rehabilitation.

Washington state recently abolished life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders under age 16, and made such sentences discretionary for 16- and 17-year-olds. The change will be applied retroactively to prisoners serving life without parole and life-equivalent sentences who were convicted as juveniles.

In Pennsylvania, however, the state Supreme Court has held that Miller does not apply retroactively – a ruling that affects about 450 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any other state. See: Commonwealth v. Cunningham, 81 A.3d 1 (Pa. 2013).

Sources:,,,,, The Morning Call,


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Related legal cases

Ex parte Maxwell


People v. Davis


State v. Null


State v. Pearson


State v. Ragland


Commonwealth v. Cunningham


Miller v. Alabama