Bid to keep minors from beings sentenced to life without parole clears House committee

Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View)
Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View)

A bill that would prevent minors from being sentenced to life without parole passed the state House Judiciary Committee Thursday. The legislation would also allow parole board hearings for those currently in prison that were sentenced as minors to life without parole for homicide offenses.

Senate Bill 294, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) and Rep. Rebecca Petty (R-Springdale), would largely ensure Arkansas law adheres to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that said juveniles should be treated differently than adults in sentencing. The decisions outlawed life without parole for all minors except those “whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” which the Court determined was nearly impossible to know during sentencing.

James Dold, advocacy director and chief strategy officer with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, testified before the committee.

The recent Supreme Court decisions stressed the “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult brains” and found life without parole sentences for minors are a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he said.

In 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana made clear that the prohibition against sentencing minors to life without parole applied retroactively for homicide cases. That would require Arkansas to resentence about 110 prisoners convicted of capital and first-degree murder as minors.

By giving prisoners a chance for parole board hearings, rather than resentencing them, this bill could save the state millions, Dold and Irvin told the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.

But the bill, Dold said, “is not a get-out-of-jail free card” for those committing serious crimes as youths.

Juveniles would still have to serve a mandatory number of years for offenses that result in life sentences: 20 years for nonhomicide offenses, 25 years for first-degree murder and 30 for capital murder. For all those offenses, “good time” — time reduced on a sentence for good behavior — would not apply. Those convicted would have to serve the mandatory number of years before becoming eligible for parole.

Two years ago, the House Judiciary Committee rejected similar legislation, largely based on the emotional testimony of Petty, whose 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1999.

This time she was a lead sponsor of SB 294, convinced of its merits after working closely with Dold and others from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

“This was a very delicate issue to me a couple of years ago,” she said. “I appreciate everyone that worked with me.”

Dold said of Petty, “It just shows her incredible grace.”

The bill would also potentially avoid at least one legal battle by doing away with future sentences that amount to de facto life sentences without parole, where a sentence exceeds an offender’s life expectancy.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court barred life without parole for nonhomicide cases in its Graham v. Florida decision, but it did not explicitly forbid de facto life without parole for nonhomicide cases.

That left a lingering question of how far someone could go in sentencing a minor for nonhomicide offenses, Joshua Rovner, from the Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center The Sentencing Project, told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

“Is [a] sentence of 99 years ‘life without parole’? The Court did not address that, but will eventually have to,” he said.

SB 294 would provide no relief to those already serving de facto life sentences for nonhomicide offenses, while disallowing them in the future.

The bill would only apply retroactively to minors sentenced to life without parole in murder cases, a requirement explicitly outlined in Montgomery v. Louisiana. There have been conflicting state responses to these decisions concerning de facto life without parole for nonhomicide offenses.

The Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that minors convicted in violation of Graham — to life without parole sentences for nonhomicide cases — could be resentenced to the maximum sentence allowed by law. Judd Deere, a spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said, “Graham offenders who filed state habeas petitions seeking Graham relief were resentenced by the state habeas court to the maximum term of years that was allowed at the time the crimes were committed.”

SB 294 originally would have required parole hearings for minors already sentenced to life without parole in nonhomicide cases, but the bill was amended in the Senate Judiciary Committee at the request of state prosecutors.

The bill now heads to the full House for consideration.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.