In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. The court had previously ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional when applied to juvenile defendants.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” explained Justice Elena Kagan for the majority. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
Recently, a case appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court tested how our state would resentence people who were sentenced to life without parole after committing crimes as juveniles. Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to life without parole after being found guilty of a murder she committed at age 16, had previously appealed her sentence to the federal courts.
This summer, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard Brown’s case and found Tennessee’s sentencing laws to be unclear about whether Brown would ultimately be eligible for parole. They implied that if Brown is never eligible for release, she would need to be resentenced to comply with Miller v. Alabama. It sent the case back to the Tennessee courts to determine if Brown could someday receive parole.
The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Brown is ultimately eligible for parole — at age 69. It decided that the law allows people convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping, aggravated child abuse and other offenses after July 1, 1995, and sentenced to life without parole can be paroled after 51 years.
Brown’s attorneys have tried various strategies to get her released, including a 2012 request for a new trial. Brown suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, a fact which was not brought up in her trial and which might affect her conviction or sentence.
As the Supreme Court said in Miller v. Alabama, a life sentence ignores the fact that young people are naturally impulsive and often fail to predict the consequences of their actions. It ignores mitigating circumstances such as fetal alcohol syndrome, abuse or other things that generally result in a lower sentence. Simply put, the Supreme Court implied that no crime, no matter how serious, should put a child behind bars with no chance for rehabilitation.
Are the Supreme Court’s concerns truly addressed by reducing Brown’s sentence to 51 years?