Clinic Leads Charge to Reform Juvenile Sentencing Laws

Students and Faculty in Juvenile Rights and Re-Entry Project Call for End to Juvenile Life Without Parole in Missouri

Washington University School of Law’s Juvenile Rights and Re-Entry Project (JRREP), part of the Civil Justice Clinic, is leading a statewide effort to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama that banned “mandatory juvenile life without parole” sentences.

The court’s ruling left the states—including Missouri—scrambling to review their 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.”

“Continuing to impose juvenile life without parole sentences is not only out of step with other justice system innovations in Missouri, but fiscally irresponsible,” said Mae Quinn, professor of law and Civil Justice Clinic co-director.

“Each juvenile serving life without parole costs more than $45 per day, making the total cost of a life in prison nearly $1 million,” added Quinn, an expert in criminal and juvenile justice system issues. “As Missouri continues to receive accolades for its problem-solving court movement and ‘smart sentencing’ initiative, which takes account of sentencing option costs, it makes little sense to persist with expensive, harsh retributively-based sentences for children.”

Quinn noted that such practices run contrary to the alleged mission of Missouri’s juvenile justice system. This disparity demonstrates a tension between the rhetoric and reality of Missouri’s concern for youth, whose immaturity, vulnerability, and potential for change should be considered before a young person is sentenced as an adult, she stressed.

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Currently, despite the Miller v. Alabama ruling, the state’s criminal code still allows for such sentences for children.

Demonstrating their commitment to the cause, Quinn and law student Aubrey Edwards-Luce recently testified before the Missouri Senate on these issues. Addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee, Quinn and Edwards-Luce provided legislators with important reasons for finally jettisoning “death behind bars” sentences for young people.

One of those reasons is the evidence of racial disparity in the application of juvenile life without parole sentences. Edwards-Luce pointed to a report issued last month by the Missouri Office of State Court Administration (OSCA) that warned about a practice it called “justice by geography” for juveniles in Missouri.

For example, St. Louis appears to be one of the state’s highest risk areas for youth of color. St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and Jackson County account for 81 percent of the African American male juveniles imprisoned in Missouri’s adult prison system.

  • OSCA Report [VIEW]
  • Edwards-Luce’s testimony [VIEW]
  • Quinn’s testimony [VIEW]

Fortunately, Quinn and Edwards-Luce are not alone in their fight against juvenile life without parole sentences. The clinic has worked with a broad range of groups on the 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 the Equal Justice Initiative—which is led by Bryan Stevenson, who argued Miller before the Supreme Court.

In addition, some of the country’s leading developmental, juvenile justice, and youth law experts recently signed a statement to show their support for the legislative advocacy efforts of JRREP.

Edwards-Luce says her experience with JRREP has taught her how client advocacy often surpasses the courtroom. “Our society is apt to dismiss juveniles because they don’t fit our concept of innocent children,” she says. “Testifying at the Judiciary Senate Committee hearing with Professor Quinn allowed me to practice holistic advocacy on behalf of our youth, a group whose rights must be better protected by our justice system.”

Quinn along with other Civil Justice Clinic students, faculty, staff, and their supporters, are proposing a change to classify juvenile conviction for first-degree murder as a Class A felony. This would allow for sentences of 10-30 years or life with the possibility of parole.

  • List of supporters [VIEW]

"The bottom line is that prison is not intended for children – condemning them to die there is wholly inconsistent with international norms as well as our own modern standards of justice,” Quinn said.

Washington University School of Law’s Civil Justice Clinic is one of 16 clinic and externship opportunites, offered through the law school’s highly-ranked Clinical Education Program. The program provides law students with opportunities nationwide to learn professional skills and values by working directly with faculty and clients, attorneys, judges, and/or legislators.