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States Struggling With Limits on Life for Juvenile Murderers

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Miller v. Alabama was an odd half-measure after a series of full-measures. In prior related cases, the Supreme Court had issued outright bans on the death penalty for minors and on life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide juvenile offenders.

Then came Miller. Its holding, oddly enough, was close to an outright ban on life-without-parole for murderers. Only it wasn't. Instead, these sentences are subject to heavy scrutiny, and must only be imposed after an "individualized" determination of the offender's age, childhood, life experience, degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and the chances for rehabilitation.

It's a mushy standard that comes with the disclaimer that such harsh sentences are almost never appropriate. It's also a standard that almost no one knows how to apply.

When the Graham decision eliminated life-without-parole for non-homicide offenders, it took years before circuit courts reached the issue of whether that decision applied retroactively. The Ninth Circuit made such a determination just this month, three years after the decision was handed down by the Supreme Court.

It looks like Miller will be applied with the same lack of speed, and haphazardly as well. USA Today recounts how a number of states have dealt with the problem:

  • In Minnesota and Florida, some judges have ruled that the opinion only applies to future cases;
  • In Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, judges have applied the opinion retroactively, though in Michigan, federal and state courts have decided the issue differently;
  • State Supreme Courts will make the ultimate determination for the states of Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts and Colorado this fall;
  • Pennsylvania's highest court has been mulling the issue for over a year;
  • At least 15 states haven't changed their legislation to comply with the ruling;
  • At least 11 states have changed their laws, and in most of those states, youthful offenders will be given a parole hearing after 25 years.

Meanwhile, back in Michigan, state lawmakers are considering a package of bills that would require judges to make the considerations required by Miller, the Attorney General Bill Schuette is planning on appealing a federal court decision from earlier this year that applied Miller retroactively to all Michigan juvenile murderers, while at the same time, a state court ruled the other way and denied retroactive application, reports the Times-Herald.

The state case is pending before the Michigan Supreme Court, while the federal case could, at some point, reach the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Shuette wants the state to withhold parole hearings until the matter has worked its way through the appeals courts.

While Michigan, with conflicting state and federal court decisions, and pending legislation, may be the most conflicted in its application, it's hardly alone. Even when the rule's applicability, retroactive or not, is settled, it is still a convoluted standard that will be difficult to apply in all cases evenly, unlike the flat bans on the death penalty and life-without-parole for non-homicide offenders.

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