Legislation that disallows life in prison without parole sentences for minors and retroactively calls for parole hearings for those sentenced in this manner in murder cases cleared a Senate committee on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 294, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin (R–Mountain View), was introduced in the wake of a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases that said minors should be treated differently than adults in sentencing and deemed life without parole cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles. The most recent of these court decisions, Montgomery v. Louisiana, also made clear that the ruling applied retroactively, at least for certain murder cases.
The ruling left Arkansas with the potential responsibility of resentencing the more than 100 prisoners serving life without parole sentences who were convicted as minors of either first-degree or capital murder.
Instead of burdening the state with resentencing hearings, the bill would provide qualifying inmates the opportunity for a parole hearing.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchison (R-Little Rock) clarified the scope of the measure.
“It’s just parole eligibility. It does not mean they’ll be granted parole,” he said.
James Dold, an advocate for the bill from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said SB 294 could save the state millions by avoiding the expense of resentencing hearings. He also emphasized the harshness of previous sentencing practices, which did not account for the development that takes place as children mature into adults.
“No matter how much a child changes, there [could] be no change in their sentence,” he said. “They [would] only leave prison in a coffin.”
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar laws outlawing life without parole for minors, but not all include SB 294’s strict provisions.
The bill requires mandatory minimum sentences for minors in certain murder cases — ranging from 25 to 30 years — and prohibits the reduction of these sentences due to good behavior.
The committee also backtracked on the original bill’s intent to allow the review of life-without-parole cases not involving homicides, too. It amended away this provision at the request of prosecutors in the state.
Lori Kumpuris, a deputy prosecutor coordinator, said the U.S. Supreme Court, while clear on capital and first-degree murder cases, had not been on other cases. Prosecutors, Kumpuris said, were comfortable with the bill after its amendment.