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Juveniles receive life sentences counter to Supreme Court ruling

by | Dec 19, 2016 | Criminal Defense

Among the 68 inmates in Wisconsin prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles sits a 33-year-old Milwaukee woman convicted of first-degree intentional homicide. She was only 13 years old — and pregnant — when she stood by and watched her boyfriend commit murder.

Young offenders used to be tried in juvenile courts, where sentences are lighter and judges take family dysfunction into account. But the state of Wisconsin automatically tries anyone aged ten or older who has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide in adult court. Many of those convicted receive life sentences with no chance of parole. 

In 2012, mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were banned by the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 2016, the Court declared that the ruling should be applied retroactively. So why are people convicted of crimes at the age of 13 still facing the prospect of life in prison? Part of the answer can be found in Wisconsin’s 1998 “Truth in Sentencing” law. The measure effectively eliminated parole, mandating that those convicted in 1999 or later must serve out the full term of their sentence — even a life sentence. 

Although the 2016 U. S. Supreme Court ruling renders those 68 inmates technically eligible for parole, it does not force reconsideration of their eligibility. Inmates brought before the parole board are usually those closest to their release dates, making it nearly impossible for those with life sentences for committing crimes as juveniles to ever come up for parole. 

Even if, in accordance with Supreme Court rulings, one was fortunate enough to be granted a parole hearing, it would not likely lead to parole. In 2000 close to 2,500 inmates were granted parole in the state of Wisconsin. In 2014, that number plummeted to just 172. Furthermore, many hurdles must be overcome in order for an inmate to be granted parole. They would have to pose little or no risk to the community, and must complete specific classes or rehabilitation processes. Because there are so few available spaces in these programs, there is not enough opportunity for even the least-threatening inmates to seek parole. 

The Supreme Court was well-intentioned in its rulings banning the life sentencing of juveniles. However, until reforms are made within the Wisconsin Parole Commission, convicted juveniles can still end up serving life sentences without a chance of parole.

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