Life-Without-Parole Teens Remain in Prison Long After High Court Ruling

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Three years after the Supreme Court gave inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles a chance at freedom, the justice system is gaining speed in revisiting scores of cases. About 400 such offenders have been released nationwide, and hundreds of others have been resentenced to shorter terms or made eligible for release by law, the Associated Press reports. Most remain behind bars as prosecutors and judges wrestle with difficult cases. Lawsuits have been filed in several states, while in 21 others, life-without-parole sentences are prohibited for those 17 and younger. One-third of those bans have been approved since 2016, says the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “The national trend is certainly one where states are moving away from these sentences, whether by legislation or through the courts,” said the campaign’s Jody Kent Lavy. “There are still some outliers that in many ways are refusing to comply with the court’s mandate.”

Missouri lawmakers decided the more than 100 inmates serving life for adolescent crimes would get a parole hearing after 25 years. The state is in court because the parole board has denied release in 85 percent of cases it has heard and has yet to free anyone. Parole hearings have focused on inmates’ crimes, with little attention on the circumstances preceding them or what offenders have done to rehabilitate themselves, the MacArthur Justice Center alleges in a lawsuit. The high court’s 2016 decision, one of four in recent years on the punishment of juveniles, cited research showing the brains of adolescents are slow to develop, making teens likelier to act recklessly but capable of rehabilitation. The court said they must not be punished with the same severity as adults, and that life-without-parole terms should be reserved for inmates who are beyond rehabilitation. At the time, more than 2,000 inmates were serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences.

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