The Cautionary Instruction: De facto life sentences for juvenile offenders

Friday, 31 May 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20130531 youthjail photocom114239785BW150Nearly three years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down, as cruel and unusual punishment, life without parole for juveniles convicted of a crime less than murder. The decision seemed to imply that youthful offenders should not die in prison.

In Graham v. Florida, the Court noted that the Eighth Amendment requires that young offenders be left with a “glimmer of hope” that they may someday be released.

That is not how Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in a dissent, saw it. He admonished lower-court judges, “Nothing in the court’s opinion affects the imposition of a sentence to a term of years without the possibility of parole.”

The Graham decision left open just what that “glimmer of hope” means. Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that a prison sentence of 110 years to life for a defendant who was a juvenile at the time of the crime violated the Eighth Amendment.

The court held, “Graham’s analysis does not focus on the precise sentence meted out. Instead, as noted above, it holds that a state must provide a juvenile offender ‘with some realistic opportunity to obtain release’ from prison during his or her expected lifetime.”

This month the Louisiana Supreme Court did the opposite. Giovanni Brown was 16 years old when he was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and four armed robberies. He was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and 40 years on the robberies.

State Judge Robert Murphy ruled last year that pursuant to Graham, Brown was eligible for parole on the aggravated kidnapping conviction.

But Murphy took Graham a step further and applied it to Brown's 40-year sentence for the robberies, making him eligible for parole at age 46. Otherwise, Brown would not have been eligible for parole for another 40 years.

"To impose 40 years of additional time without benefits after a parole review of a life sentence would effectively negate Graham's ultimate directive to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation for the juvenile," Murphy wrote.

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Murphy correctly applied Graham to Brown's life sentence, but was incorrect in applying it to the other sentences. "[N]othing in Graham addresses a defendant convicted of multiple offenses and given a term of year sentence that, if tacked on to the life sentence parole eligibility date, equate to a possible release date when the defendant reaches the age of 86."

Although there is obvious confusion, the U.S. Supreme Court recently turned away an appeal from Ohio, where an offender, 16-years-old at the time of the offense, was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman in a carjacking. He was sentenced to 89 years in prison. Even assuming he becomes eligible for early release, he will be 95 years old before he can walk out of prison.

(Image: Juanmonino/Getty Images)

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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