The new year is off to an exciting start as legislatures and courts throughout the country react to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Miller v. Alabama banning mandatory life without parole for youth. We are closely tracking these developments and working in partnership with attorneys, advocates and others in the states to advance meaningful legislation, defeat harmful bills and strategically use legal decisions to advance broader reforms. We are expanding the coalition of organizations partnering in our cause and are continuing to raise the profile of the issue through our communications work so that the movement to scale back extreme sentences for youth can move forward as cohesively and strategically as possible.
The Miller decision helped to establish a new era for the ways that we hold children accountable for the harm that they have caused. It is the fourth Supreme Court ruling in eight years that identifies youth status as a relevant factor when children face the justice system. But as we anticipated, some state policymakers have responded to the landmark opinion by introducing legislation that would ignore both the letter and spirit of Miller. A handful of state legislatures are considering more comprehensive approaches. As state advocates look to take the Miller decision from paper to practice, they look to us for guidance.
Only two states – Pennsylvania and North Carolina – have passed legislation post-Miller. The laws are a step forward but do not go far enough. Both have abolished life without parole for children convicted of some crimes but keep death-in-prison sentences on the books for others.
We know it will be an uphill battle to convince legislators that they need to approach Miller-related sentencing reforms holistically and thoughtfully, rather than simply replacing mandatory life without parole with other harsh sentences. We will need to demonstrate to policymakers the broad support that exists for reform from partners like, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which recently endorsed our principles as our newest official supporter. If your organization is interested in signing on to our statement of principles as an official supporter, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want specific information regarding activity in your state, please contact LaShunda Hill at LHill@fairsentencingforyouth.org.
While the efforts to create real reform heat up in the state legislatures, lawyers are simultaneously working in courts to turn the words of both Miller and Graham v. Florida into concrete changes in the lives of people facing the possibility of spending the rest of their lives in prison for crimes that took place when they were children.
Judges around the country are grappling with a variety of legal issues and are trying to figure out exactly how these decisions affect people already serving this sentence as well as the youth currently charged with crimes where the sentence is a possibility. Some judges have decided that the Supreme Court ruling is intended to be far-reaching, making young people who have previously received the sentence eligible for parole consideration. Meanwhile, lawyers are coordinating their litigation strategies and building their skills in advance of any resentencing opportunities created by Miller. We are working with attorneys to share information and ensure that litigation and legislative efforts are coordinated so that litigation-based reform efforts have the best possible chances for success.
We are pleased to announce that we will begin a series of webinars and other presentations by experts in fields that will be relevant to Miller resentencings, such as trauma, institutional disciplinary history, re-entry, and adolescent development. If you are an attorney representing someone potentially affected by the Miller decision and are interested in our litigators’ calls or our webinar series, please contact our litigation specialist, John Hardenbergh, at email@example.com.
Finally, be sure to check out our new website. It is designed to be more user friendly while highlighting important news and information. In our resource section, you can find a map of state policies, tool kits, and state and national reports about life without parole for youth. The website offers many opportunities for engagement and provides a primer on the Supreme Court cases most relevant to our work.
This past year saw so much forward progress in our efforts to establish fair sentences for youth. Together, we will ensure that extreme sentences are replaced with age-appropriate laws and policies that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. We look forward to working with you in 2013!
Jody Kent Lavy