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Can Minnesota Sentence Juvenile Defendants To Life Without Parole?

Kids in Prison for Life

Can Minnesota sentence juvenile defendants to life without parole?

A few hundred years ago, child defendants over the age of 14, and in some cases over the age of 7, were treated like everyone else when it came to punishments, which, as you can imagine, led to some pretty horrific punishments for very young offenders.  Fortunately, this changed with the introduction of juvenile courts in the late 1800s, but the pendulum began to swing the other way in the 1970s and 1980s, with more juvenile defendants being sentenced to the same or similar sentences as adults would serve.

However, in a recent decision called Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that laws providing for mandatory life without parole, for those under 18 at the time of their crime, violate our constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.  As the court argues, children have several characteristics that make them constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.  These characteristics include less moral culpability, a greater likelihood of reform, lack of maturity, impulsive or reckless behavior, susceptibility to negative outside influences, and limited control over their own environment.  It’s a long list of convincing reasons that are, as the court notes, backed up by social science research.

This case represents the next logical step from two previous Supreme Court cases, Roper and Graham.  In Roper, the court held that capital punishment for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional, and in Graham, it found that life without parole for non-homicide offenses was unconstitutional.  Both of those cases relied on similar considerations in their findings.  Taken together, these three cases show a trend towards limiting the imposition of harsh punishments on juvenile defendants.

This has implications for Minnesota, which has several convicted juvenile defendants serving mandatory life without parole sentences.  Although the defendants were tried as adults, the rules announced in the United States Supreme Court cases above apply whenever the defendant was under 18 at the time of the crimes.

So, does this mean that Minnesota will have to release or re-sentence these defendants?  Not necessarily.  First, the Miller v. Alabama case only prohibits mandatory life without parole sentences.  That means that as long as the court has discretion to sentence the juvenile to something other than life without parole, a life without parole sentence may still be constitutional.  However, at least some juvenile defendants in Minnesota are serving sentences that were imposed under Minnesota’s mandatory life without parole sentencing requirements.

Even so, it’s unclear whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision applies retroactively—that is, to sentences which were imposed before the ruling.  Whether or not a decision applies retroactively is determined by a fairly complex analysis of whether or not the decision is procedural or substantive.  Procedural decisions often don’t apply retroactively unless they are “watershed” decisions.  New substantive rules, which including decisions narrowing the scope of a criminal statute as well as constitutional determinations limiting the State’s power to punish, do generally apply retroactively.  While it looks like a good argument can be made that the Miller decision limits the State’s power to punish and thus should apply retroactively, further litigation is going to be required to determine whether this is the case.