Lawmakers wrestle with rulings on juvenile sentencing
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.