By JULIET LINDERMAN
BALTIMORE (AP) — A U.S. Supreme Court decision triggering new sentences for inmates serving mandatory life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles has had a far greater effect: The ruling is prompting lawyers to apply its fundamental logic — that it’s cruel and unusual to lock teens up for life — to a larger population, those whose sentences include a parole provision but who stand little chance of getting out.
The court in January 2016 expanded its ban on mandatory life without parole for juveniles to more than 2,000 offenders already serving such sentences, saying teens should be treated differently than adult offenders because they’re less mature and capable of change. The court found that all but the rare irredeemable juvenile lifer should have a chance to argue for freedom one day. Dozens have since been resentenced and released.
But legal challenges are also being argued on behalf of offenders sentenced to life with parole for crimes committed as teens — a population totaling some 7,300 inmates nationwide, according to Ashley Nellis at The Sentencing Project.
“Even states that do have parole, it doesn’t give a lot of reason for hope,” Nellis said. “The Supreme Court was very clear to say that age-related factors need to be considered at resentencing or parole review, but the feedback we’re seeing is that those factors aren’t being considered.”
Other courts are applying the 2016 ruling to those whose life-without-parole sentences weren’t mandatory or were negotiated in a plea deal. In Florida, more than 600 are possibly eligible for new sentences because court decisions there require a new look at anyone serving life for crimes committed as minors — even if their sentences were optional or included the possibility of parole.
The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on these other circumstances, but some state courts have. In January, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ordered new sentences for two former teen offenders with de facto life terms. One was serving 110 years and would come up for parole only after 55; the other had 75 years and would come up for parole only after 68.
The court noted both would “likely serve more time in jail than an adult sentenced to actual life without parole.”
The number of years inmates must serve before being up for parole varies: In Tennessee, a lifer must serve 51 years. In Texas, 40.
Lifers can qualify for a hearing after 10 years in Michigan. In 44 states, governors appoint parole boards, and review procedures vary greatly. Some boards review prisoner files without using in-person interviews. Some states specify which considerations should be taken into account; others allow for a great deal of discretion.
If a prisoner is denied, he’ll likely wait years for another chance and sometimes isn’t told why.
Chester Patterson, 63, has been behind bars for 45 years in Michigan. At 17, he fatally shot a store clerk. He got life with the possibility of parole after 10 years. Patterson has earned degrees, completed a substance-abuse program, and avoided disciplinary tickets. But he’s been denied parole at least five times, records show, and the board has sent him a notice saying “no interest.” He’s awaiting a decision after his most recent hearing.
“I am not that same 17-year-old kid. I will never commit another crime again,” Patterson wrote to The Associated Press. “I caused a terrible tragedy for which I will always be sorry and shameful.”
His case isn’t unique. In Florida, a Supreme Court ruling last year said juvenile offenders who were eligible for parole must be resentenced to ensure they have a real opportunity for release. It involved the case of Angelo Atwell, who got life with the possibility of parole after 25 years for a murder he had committed at the age of 16. When it came time for Atwell to argue for his freedom, the state calculated his presumptive release date would be 2130 — 140 years after his sentencing.
“While technically Atwell is parole eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison,” the justices wrote, and his sentence, “virtually indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole, is therefore unconstitutional.”
Atwell is now awaiting a new hearing.
In 2013, Iowa’s high court found the state governor hadn’t complied with the U.S. Supreme Court when he commuted the life-without-parole sentences of 38 juveniles to life with the possibility of parole after 60 years. The reason? The inmates wouldn’t be up for parole until they were past their natural life expectancy.
More legal challenges have been filed in North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri, among other states.
Maryland, Oklahoma and California are the only three states that require the governor to sign off on lifers’ parole recommendations. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Maryland, arguing that a life-with-parole sentence doesn’t afford prisoners a real chance of being released since governors haven’t approved any petitions in two decades. Even Parris Glendening, the former Maryland governor who set the standard when he declared in 1995 that “life means life,” says the system he designed is dysfunctional.
“What happens with lifers now, I had some responsibility. And I say that not with pride, but with regret,” Glendening told the AP. “What we’re finding now is people who are juveniles … they are now aging in prison, are probably a threat to no one at this stage. It’s a question of humane treatment: Is it humane or cruel and unusual to have someone sitting in jail at 50, 60, 70 for an offense committed half a century ago?”