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Federal judge rules juvenile life sentences unconstitutional

A judge for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional. Judge John Corbett O'Meara found that last year's Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama [JURIST report], which held that mandatory life sentences for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment, should apply retroactively to juveniles sentenced before that decision. In the opinion, O'Meara wrote:

In this case, each of the Plaintiffs was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder. As a result, they received mandatory life sentences. Pursuant to statute, the parole board lacks jurisdiction over anyone convicted of first-degree murder. This statutory scheme combines to create life without parole sentences for those who committed their crimes as juveniles. This type of sentencing scheme is clearly unconstitutional under Miller.
The ruling focused on the constitutionality of a parole statute [text] that imposed mandatory life sentences for certain offenses. Under the court's decision the plaintiffs will now be eligible for parole.

In November the Michigan Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that Miller did not apply retroactively. In October Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] wrote a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett asking him to veto [JURIST report] legislation which would maintain the sentence of life without parole as an option for child offenders. In June the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in two combined cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs [SCOTUS backgrounders] that mandatory life sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment. Some observers have argued that the reasoning the court used in this case could easily be extended [JURIST op-ed] in the future to abolish life in prison without the possibility of parole sentences for all juvenile homicide cases. JURIST Guest Columnist Perry Moriearty of the University of Minnesota Law School recently argued that the Miller decision marks an important step toward restoring principles of rehabilitation [JURIST op-ed] to the juvenile justice system.

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