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Reconsidering Juvenile Life Sentences

August 19, 2016

Courtesy of Office for Victims of Crime Director Joye E. Frost and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Robert L. Listenbee

Office for Victims of Crime Director Joye E. Frost and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Robert L. ListenbeeOn a November day in 1999, 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson accompanied two boys to a video store in Blytheville, Arkansas, to commit a robbery.  On the way there, he learned that one of the boys was carrying a shotgun.  Jackson stayed outside for most of the robbery, but after he entered, one of his co-conspirators shot and killed the store clerk.  Arkansas charged Jackson as an adult with capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, and a jury convicted him of both crimes.  The trial judge imposed a statutorily mandated sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. 

His case and that of another 14-year-old, Evan Miller, eventually found their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.  Until he was resentenced, Kuntrell Jackson was one of about 2,500 people in the United States serving life terms without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles.  Earlier this year, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court ruled that states must apply the Miller ruling retroactively, opening the door to the possibility of resentencing or parole for hundreds of men and women across the country.

Montgomery v. Louisiana builds upon a growing body of Supreme Court decisions based on recent research in adolescent brain development and behavior.  In the first set of cases, Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, the Court established that children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes.  Their “lack of maturity” and “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” lead to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.  Adolescents are more easily influenced by their surroundings, prone to peer pressure and unable to foresee the consequences of their actions.  These findings also mean that, over a lifetime, people are amenable to change and redemption.  

Our goal at the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) is to implement juvenile justice reforms that take into account the developmental states of youth while holding them accountable for their actions.  To that end, OJP’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) commissioned two studies—Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach and Implementing Juvenile Justice Reform: The Federal Role—that underscore the importance of adopting a developmental approach to our juvenile justice reform efforts and that provide the clarity needed to ensure the appropriate delivery of justice.

States are beginning to explore the route they will take to implement the Court’s decision regarding individuals sentenced to life without parole as youth, many of whom suffered trauma and violent victimization before they became involved in the justice system.  At the same time, state policymakers and practitioners must think about how they will meet the needs of victims and their loved ones who, as they revisit cases they believed were concluded, may relive some of the most traumatic events and profound losses of their lives.

OJP’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and OJJDP appreciate the deep impact of Montgomery on the lives of the thousands of youth, victims, advocates and justice system stakeholders we serve nationwide.  At this crucial early stage, some jurisdictions are already modeling their responses to Montgomery through steering committees or other collaborations to ensure communication at the state and local levels.  In Pennsylvania, for example, judges, prosecutors, defenders and state parole and corrections officials have been meeting since January 2016 to build a process for handling cases, and the Office of the Victim Advocate, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole joined to release a resource for victims that explains the parole process and role of various stakeholders in their state.

Resources like this, as well as local courts’ collaboration with service providers who understand how to support families, will help ensure that notification and the victims’ reaction to it is handled in a sensitive and trauma-informed manner, which recognizes that healing, participation or justice may look as different to each victim as it does to each inmate.  Such resources can ensure that victims receive information about the progress of their individual cases, opportunities to attend parole or resentencing hearings, and the choice to make themselves heard.  And it means offering resources and support services, including victim-centered restorative justice or opportunities for dialogue, where possible, during or following release. 

OJP stands ready to support the states as they navigate their responses to Montgomery.  We encourage state and local stakeholders, including parole boards, to familiarize themselves with the literature and data regarding adolescent development and adolescent crime and with our Help for Victims Resources page.  OVC anticipates bringing a visiting Fellow on-site in 2017, who will be dedicated to promoting evidence-based resources for meeting victim post-conviction needs.  Other agencies, such as the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), have online and other resources, including NIC’s section devoted to Post-Conviction Victim Services.

Montgomery will have a far-reaching impact, not only on those now eligible for a life beyond the prison walls and their family members, but also on the family members of victims of these crimes.  Together, federal, state and local governments can rise to the challenge and ensure that all who are impacted receive the diversity of support services they may need to find stability and healing along the way.

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Updated March 3, 2017