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Missouri grapples with life sentences for juveniles

In June 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Miller v. Alabama, holding that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. That decision has left some of Missouri’s offenders in limbo as state courts try to determine the best course of action.

Currently, there are 84 inmates in Missouri prisons serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Determining how to reform Missouri’s sentencing laws to comply with the high court’s decision will ultimately be up to state lawmakers. However, in the meantime the Missouri Supreme Court is hearing cases and trying to come up with an interim solution for these inmates.

Under current state law, the criminal charge of murder in the first degree can only be punished one of two ways: life without parole or death. An earlier Supreme Court decision held that it is also unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to death. Advocates of juvenile justice have argued that the state’s lawmakers should set a broad range of sentencing options so judges can use their discretion in these cases.

Young people, including those who carry the most promise for our state and our future, will inevitably make mistakes. Mistakes are a vital part of growing up and they help us learn and become better people. However, when a young person is sentenced to live out the rest of their days in prison that promise can be dashed.

Of course the state has a valid interest in holding criminal offenders responsible for their actions and protecting public safety. However, the state also has an interest in making sure that children are treated fairly under the law so they have an opportunity to grow up and contribute to society.

We can hope that courts and lawmakers will take those competing interests seriously as they shape the future of the state’s juvenile offenders.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Missouri’s top court hears 2 cases of St. Louis juveniles given life sentences,” Jennifer Mann, April 30, 2013

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