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Bill Giving Judges a Choice in Juvenile Capital Offenses Passes Senate

By Susan Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY–Wednesday, a bill (SB218), giving judges who sentence juveniles in capital offense cases a choice in sentencing guidelines, passed out of the Alabama Senate.
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), said that because of the US Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, this bill, if passed, would make Alabama compliant with that ruling.

Decided on June 25, 2012, the court said that not giving a judge a choice in sentencing guidelines of juvenile capitol offense cases, violated the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and deemed it “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Ward said, “We have sentencing guidelines right now in Alabama that if you commit capital murder as a juvenile (at 16 to 17 years old), the current sentencing guidelines say the judge has to, once convicted, sentence you to lifetime without parole, end of story.”

According to the bill, this would add the choice of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 40 years. It states, “…to provide generally that a person convicted of a non-homicide crime committed when under the age of 18 years is subject to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 40 years, rather than life imprisonment without parole…”

Ward said that a convicted capital offender could still receive life without parole. He said, “[The judge] can still sentence you to life without parole but he cannot just be forced to, he has to have a choice.”

“We have a lot of court cases going through right now where you have juvenile capital murderers. There are also some that have already been convicted and have been sentenced guaranteed life without parole that are coming back and saying, ‘According to this case you have got to give me something else.’ But our judges have no guidelines for which to sentence those individuals,” said Ward.

Even though Ward said that it would eventually help relieve some of the prison overcrowding, the main savings would be in the courts. He said that the court costs that would be incurred as a result of multiple appeals would represent the greatest savings as a result of the passage of this bill.

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In Miller v. Alabama, in 1999, 3 14-year-old boys decided to rob a video store. While en route, one of the boys discovered that another had a sawed-off shotgun hidden in his clothing. The first boy decided to stay outside the store while the other two entered. The second boy pointed the gun at the store clerk and demanded money. The clerk refused and threatened to call the police. At this point he shot her.

The court’s opinion was, “The two 14-year-old offenders in these cases were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In neither case did the sentencing authority have any discretion to impose a different punishment. State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate. Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability’ and greater ‘capacity for change,’ Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 130 S.Ct. 2011, 2026-2027, 2029-2030, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), and runs afoul of our cases’ requirement of individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties. We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”

The bill will now be transmitted to the House for assignment to committee.

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