CJC Juvenile Rights and Re-Entry Project Students Advocate for Young Offenders at Legislative Hearing
Third-year law students Lance Bonner and Jack Luze recently testified before the Missouri legislature to propose the end of mandatory “life without parole” sentencing for juvenile offenders. Their testimony was received by the Joint Interim Committee on the Missouri Criminal Code. The committee is working to revise the provisions, which have not undergone a comprehensive review since the 1970s.
In particular, last summer, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders are “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional.
The court’s ruling left the states—including Missouri—scrambling to review their own juvenile sentencing laws. Missouri Revised Statute 565.020 states that offenders convicted of certain crimes face only two options: the death penalty or life in prison without parole. However, because juveniles are exempt from the death penalty, the “life without parole” sentence is, in effect, “mandatory.”
Enter the Juvenile Rights and Re-Entry Project (JR-REP), part of the law school’s Civil Justice Clinic (CJC).
“Missouri’s law has to reflect the Supreme Court’s ruling for the treatment of young offenders,” says Mae Quinn, CJC co-director and professor of law. “One way to correct Missouri’s unconstitutional sentencing law is to amend the statute and classify juvenile conviction for first-degree murder as a Class A felony, which would allow for sentences of 10-30 years or life with the possibility of parole.”
For Bonner and Luze, appearing before the state legislature allowed them to hone their legal advocacy skills while presenting their argument in a large public forum.
“Testifying was an empowering experience,” Bonner says. “The room was packed that day because various sentencing issues were under consideration, and it was interesting to see the state legislature interacting with the public. It provided a good observation of civic engagement.”
Luze adds that the legislators were attentive to the students’ testimony. “They asked a lot of good follow-up questions and were very interested in hearing what we had to say,” he says. “Many of their questions were about the basics of the subject matter rather than the specifics of Miller v. Alabama. We thought it was important to keep the focus on one thing: changing Missouri’s unconstitutional law.”
The Joint Interim Committee released a report at the end of last month, which has been presented to the full legislature, capturing the proposals of the JR-REP and quoting Bonner and Luze.
The clinic will now prepare further written materials to present to the legislature as it considers next steps in the coming legislative session. These will include a “Juvenile Life without Parole Fact Sheet” for legislators, being prepared by third-year clinic students Jordan Pauluhn and Astrid Munn. Part of the goal is to supply an easy-to-read document that is clear and avoids unnecessary “legalese” or political overtones.
“This is a cross-cutting issue that is important to people of different political persuasions, liberals and conservatives, for different reasons,” Munn says. “Though we may be passionate as youth advocates about the need to change the law relating to juveniles, there are other reasons why this should not be seen as a polarizing issue.”
Pauluhn agrees: “This issue isn’t one-sided; it cuts in every direction.” For example, he says that one of the key points in the fact sheet is that taxpayers bear a heavy cost for incarcerating children. Each juvenile serving life without parole costs more than $45 per day, making the total cost of a life in prison nearly $1 million. Another key point focuses less on financial arguments and more on fairness, stressing that juveniles have a greater opportunity for change than adult offenders because juveniles’ brains are not fully developed.
Quinn adds that the Juvenile Rights and Re-Entry Project, which she leads along with clinic attorney Kathryn Pierce, has been helping to serve as an “organizing entity” around the issue of ending and correcting mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles in the state of Missouri.
She explains, “Our clinic has been working with local, state, and national partners on sharing information and engaging in advocacy efforts. We’ve been pleased to collaborate with a wide range of groups around this issue, including the Office of the Missouri State Public Defender, the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, and of course the Equal Justice Initiative—which is led by Bryan Stevenson who argued Miller before the Supreme Court.”
“These efforts seek to demonstrate that juveniles’ immaturity, vulnerability, and potential for change need to be considered before a young person is sentenced as an adult,” she says. “Children can and do change. They deserve the chance to be released from prison so that they can lead productive, meaningful lives.”
- The New York Times recently ran an editorial, “Juvenile Injustice,” calling for jurisdiction by jurisdiction post-Miller reforms like those advocated by the clinic and its students.
By Timothy J. Fox