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Can Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life in Prison in SC?

In State v. Slocum, decided this week, the SC Supreme Court held that juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison in SC, as long as the court doesn't call it a life sentence...

The US Supreme Court has held that:

  • Juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to death;
  • Juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense; and then
  • Juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without parole, even for homicide.

Slocum was sentenced to 130 years in prison - the total of the consecutive sentences the court gave him for non-homicide offenses committed during two separate incidents at 13 years old.

The SC Supreme Court's reasoning in affirming his 130-year sentence is that 1) it wasn't life without parole, and 2) it's not up to them to add protections under the Eighth Amendment that the US Supreme Court hasn't already given.

Obviously, in the absence of new advances in medicine and longevity, 130 years is a life sentence.

The SC Supreme Court, however, pretends that it is not, because the US Supreme Court's opinions only forbid sentencing a juvenile to life in prison when a court calls it life in prison, as opposed to a 130-year sentence.

Can Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life in Prison?

Over the past 14 years, the US Supreme Court has addressed whether juvenile life sentences violate the Eighth Amendment in three cases - Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama.

The SC Supreme Court found that, although the US Supreme Court says a life sentence for a juvenile violates the Eighth Amendment, a 130-year sentence for a juvenile does not...

Roper v. Simmons

In Roper v. Simmons, the US Supreme Court held that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death. Why?

  • Juveniles "exhibited a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, resulting in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions;"
  • They "were more susceptible to negative outside influences such as peer pressure;"
  • They "had personality traits that were more transitory and less fixed than adults;"
  • "A juvenile's irresponsible conduct was not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult and less indicative of an irretrievably depraved character;"
  • "As a result of juveniles' diminished culpability, the penological justifications for the death penalty applied to them with less force than to adults;" and, therefore
  • "The death penalty was an ineffective and inappropriate punishment for juvenile offenders."

Graham v. Florida

In Graham v. Florida, the US Supreme extended their reasoning from Roper v. Simmons to prohibit life without parole sentences for a non-homicide offense committed by juveniles:

As a result of the differences between juveniles and adults outlined in Roper and the perceived moral distinction between homicide and nonhomicide crimes, the Supreme Court concluded that, as compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile nonhomicide offender who did not kill or intend to kill had a "twice diminished moral culpability."

The Court noted that life without parole is "the second most severe penalty permitted by law and shared key features with a death sentence 'that are shared by no other sentence,' most importantly, the certainty the defendant will die in prison."

The Supreme Court discounted the penological justifications-retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation-for sentencing a juvenile nonhomicide offender to life without parole because juveniles have diminished culpability, are less likely to take possible punishment into consideration when making decisions, and cannot be reliably classified as incorrigible at a young age.

Graham v. Florida applies only to non-homicide offenses. Can a juvenile be sentenced to life without parole for committing murder?

Miller v. Alabama

In Miller v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court extended their reasoning from Graham v. Florida to homicide cases as well - the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile for any type of offense.

The Supreme Court reiterated that Roper and Graham stood for the principle that juveniles are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes due to their diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform...

...none of what [Graham v. Florida] said about children-about their distinctive (and transitory) mental traits and environmental vulnerabilities-is crime specific... So Graham's reasoning implicates any life without parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, even as its categorical bar relates only to nonhomicide offenses.

The SC Supreme Court in Slocum decided that life without parole is not the same as 130 years arrived at by imposing consecutive sentences. According to SC, the Eighth Amendment prohibits life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, but only if the Court calls it life without the possibility of parole.

If a juvenile receives a sentence that far exceeds the possible length of his life, and the sentence is long enough that there is no possibility that the juvenile will receive parole before dying in prison, that's not life without parole and it does not violate the Eighth Amendment. Make sense?

So, if you are a prosecutor or judge who wants to ensure that a child is sentenced to life without parole despite that pesky Constitution and those annoying Supreme Court Justices, just give them multiple consecutive sentences for different offenses.

The Youth Sentencing Act of 2019

The SC Supreme Court also points out that the SC legislature introduced the "Youth Sentencing Act of 2019" in February, which, if passed, will retroactively:

  • Prohibit juvenile offenders from being sentenced to life without parole;
  • Provide parole eligibility after 20 years for non-homicide juvenile offenses;
  • Provide parole eligibility after 25 years for homicide juvenile offenses;
  • Allow for sentences below statutory mandatory minimums for non-homicide juvenile offenses;
  • Ban solitary confinement for juvenile offenders; and
  • Modify SC's geriatric release program to add factors to consider for juvenile offenders.

If the Youth Sentencing Act passes, it should solve the constitutional issues in juvenile sentencing in SC. Although a child who commits murder does not have to be released after 25 years, there would be the option to release that person based on their maturity and evidence that they are not, after all, incorrigible and unchangeable.

Got Axelrod?

If your child has been accused of a crime in SC, they need an experienced juvenile criminal defense attorney to fight their charges and to minimize the impact this will have on the rest of their life.

Your Myrtle Beach juvenile criminal defense lawyer on the Axelrod team will help to get your child's case dismissed, find an alternative to conviction, try their case to a family court judge, or minimize the consequences, depending on the facts of their case.

Call now at (843) 916-9300 or fill out our email contact form to set up a free initial consultation about your case.

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