Law­mak­ers wres­tle with rul­ings on ju­ve­nile sen­tenc­ing

Tulsa World - - Our Lives - By Darla Slipke

Ok­la­homa law­mak­ers have been weigh­ing how to re­spond to re­cent U.S. Supreme Court rul­ings that have lim­ited the ap­pli­ca­tion of life with­out pa­role sen­tences for ju­ve­niles.

At least one leg­is­la­tor, House Mi­nor­ity Leader Emily Vir­gin, plans to au­thor a bill for the ses­sion that be­gins in Fe­bru­ary. She held an in­terim study re­cently to gather var­i­ous per­spec­tives.

“We need to fig­ure out how we're go­ing to do the re-sen­tenc­ing process and what we're go­ing to do with this is­sue go­ing for­ward,” said Vir­gin, D-Nor­man.

More than 40 Ok­la­homa in­mates who are serv­ing life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role for crimes they com­mit­ted as ju­ve­niles qual­ify for re-sen­tenc­ing fol­low­ing the court de­ci­sions, of­fi­cials said. Some are go­ing through that process now.

Kathryn Brewer, as­sis­tant ex­ec­u­tive co­or­di­na­tor for the Dis­trict At­tor­neys Coun­cil, said representatives from the coun­cil are sched­uled to meet with Vir­gin next week.

“We're open to di­a­logue and dis­cus­sion, but we would op­pose leg­is­la­tion that elim­i­nates life with­out pa­role com­pletely,” she said.

“There are sit­u­a­tions in which ju­ve­nile life with­out pa­role should be an op­tion and where in or­der to en­sure pub­lic safety, that op­tion needs to re­main,” Brewer said.

In 2012, hav­ing al­ready banned the death penalty for ju­ve­niles and life with­out pa­role for ju­ve­niles not con­victed of homi­cide, the Supreme Court ruled that manda­tory life with­out pa­role sen­tences for mur­der­ers younger than 18 vi­o­lated the Eighth Amend­ment's ban on cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment.

In 2016, the court ruled that its 2012 de­ci­sion must be ap­plied retroac­tively and said the sever­est pun­ish­ment must be re­served for “the rarest of ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers,” whose crimes re­flect “per­ma­nent in­cor­ri­gi­bil­ity.”

The Ok­la­homa In­di­gent De­fense Sys­tem has iden­ti­fied 43 Ok­la­homa in­mates af­fected by the court rul­ings, al­though of­fi­cials said it's dif­fi­cult to pin­point the ex­act num­ber.

In the wake of the Supreme Court rul­ings, the Ok­la­homa Court of Crim­i­nal Ap­peals has or­dered re­sen­tenc­ing for some mur­der­ers who were ju­ve­niles at the time of the killing.

The Supreme Court de­ci­sions have spurred ef­forts in Ok­la­homa and other states to re­visit laws re­lated to the pun­ish­ment of ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers dur­ing re­cent years.

Vir­gin au­thored a bill in the last leg­isla­tive ses­sion that would have placed the re-sen­tenc­ing process in front of the Ok­la­homa Par­don and Pa­role Board.

Vir­gin said dis­trict at­tor­neys and dis­trict courts don't have the re­sources to re-lit­i­gate all of the older cases. More­over, she said, new tri­als could force fam­ily mem­bers and oth­ers to re­live the trauma.

“That's some­thing that I want to be very con­scious of — not putting them through es­sen­tially an en­tire new trial,” Vir­gin said.

The bill also would have out­lawed life with­out pa­role sen­tences for ju­ve­niles and en­sured that any ju­ve­nile who was sen­tenced to life would have a mean­ing­ful op­por­tu­nity for re­view, Vir­gin said. The bill made it through the House Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee but wasn't heard on the floor.

A sep­a­rate leg­isla­tive ef­fort to ad­dress the is­sue last ses­sion was ve­toed by the gover­nor.

Twenty-one states have banned life with­out pa­role for ju­ve­niles, and a hand­ful of other states have no one serv­ing the sen­tence, ac­cord­ing to The Sen­tenc­ing Pro­ject, a na­tional non­profit.

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