Juveniles Still Face Decades in Prison Under New Mandatory Minimum Sentences

George Lavender

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Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s decision banning mandatory minimum sentences of life without parole for under 18s. A new briefing by the Sentencing Project says that state’s efforts to comply with that decision have been decidedly mixed.” Miller v Alabama struck down mandatory minimum sentencing laws in 28 states and the federal government, finding that such sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.” 

A majority of the 28 states have not passed legislation. Frequently, the new laws have left those currently serving life without parole without recourse to a new sentence. Though 13 of the 28 states have passed compliance laws since Miller; the minimum time that must be served before parole review is still substantial, ranging from 25 years (Delaware, North Carolina, and Washington) to 40 years (Nebraska and Texas).

In its 2012 decision the Supreme Court noted that developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” such as in parts of the brain involved in behavior control.”

According to the Sentencing Project, of the 28 states affected by the Miller v Alabama ruling, only three have banned the use of life without parole for juveniles entirely. Fifteen states have yet to come up with new sentencing guidelines. In 2012, The Guardian spoke with Quantel Lotts, who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 14.

When Quantel Lotts was 17 he put together a makeshift tattoo gun using the motor of an old Walkman casette player and a stylus fashioned from a sharpened staple. Then he asked a fellow inmate to etch two words in Gothic script down each of his outer forearms.

On his right arm he wrote DEAD. On his left arm he wrote MAN.

That’s how I felt at the time, like I was already dead,” he says.

He had just been handed down the most severe punishment – short of execution – possible in America. He was tried as an adult for a homicide he committed when he was 14 years and 21 days old, and sentenced to life without parole. He will remain in jail until he dies.

Now 26, Lott has seen his tattoos blur slightly, but his punishment remains as sharp as the moment the jury pronounced him guilty. Under the terms of his sentence, he will never stand before a parole board, never have the chance to reveal how much he’s changed, never be able to show that the impulsive kid who killed his step-brother in an adolescent fight 12 years ago no longer exists.

He will never be free.

They locked me up and gave me life without. It’s like they killed all hope for the future. There’s nothing left.”

Along with Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South Vermont, and Virginia, Missouri has yet to implement new sentencing guidelines. Lott, who is now 28, continues to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Southeast Correctional Center in Missouri. 

Even amongst the states which have passed new sentencing laws, the majority have not been retroactive. As a result many juveniles sentenced to life without parole before the court ruling have not had their sentences altered. 

The Miller decision followed a series of Supreme Court cases reducing the maximum sentences states could impose on young people. In 2005 the court ruled that executing a defendant for a crime committed before they were 18 was unconstitutional. Then in Graham v Florida, the court ruled that states could not sentence juveniles to life without parole for any crime except homicide.

Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child forbids life imprisonment for children. The US is one of the only UN members which has signed, but not ratified, the convention. 

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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