The Platte County prosecutor, who heads a statewide association for prosecuting attorneys, said Tuesday that lawmakers’ failure to pass a new sentencing structure for juveniles could delay or jeopardize the trials of teens accused of murder.
Under Missouri law, anyone convicted of first-degree murder is either sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
However, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 said death sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, leaving life without parole as the only sentencing option for Missourians under 18 who are convicted of murder.
But in June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down automatic life without parole for juvenile offenders, the option used by the federal government and at least two dozen states, including Missouri.
That decision has left juveniles now locked up and those awaiting trial in limbo. Missouri lawmakers tried to change the state’s automatic sentence but could not reach agreement before adjourning last week.
Eric Zahnd, prosecuting attorney in Platte County, said the legislature’s inaction is “really disheartening” and the entire criminal justice system is now “in a lurch.”
“We are extremely disappointed that lawmakers failed to specify a punishment for these heinous murders,” said Zahnd, who is president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
The U.S. Supreme Court said that life-without-parole sentences could not be mandatory or automatic and that state courts had to look at certain factors before sentencing, including a juvenile’s role in a crime and his or her upbringing.
“Under these (current) schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other — the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court’s 5-4 majority.
The chairman of the Missouri Senate’s judiciary committee proposed a measure that left life without parole as a possibility but also would have allowed a court to sentence a juvenile to 50 years in prison.
The proposal from Republican Sen. Bob Dixon of Springfield would have required a second hearing to determine sentencing if the juvenile was convicted of first-degree murder. It also would have allowed those already in prison for killings committed while they were juveniles to ask for new sentencing hearings.
Opponents said the plan would not have solved the problem because 50 years in prison amounts to a life sentence, violating the court’s directive against automatic life sentences for juveniles. Others argued that life prison sentences should not be an option for teens.
“We doubt that life without parole is ever appropriate for a juvenile,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.
Other states also have been scrambling to pass new sentencing guidelines for juveniles.
Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill allowing judges to reduce sentences to 25 years to life if an inmate shows remorse and is working toward rehabilitation. In Iowa, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad commuted all juvenile life sentences to 60 years. Pennsylvania lawmakers set minimum sentences of 25 years for defendants 14 or younger convicted of first-degree murder, while those 15 to 17 would have to serve at least 35 years.
But the fate of Missouri’s 84 inmates who were convicted before the 2012 court ruling remains uncertain. The decision could fall to the Missouri Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments for three cases on April 30 in which people serving prison sentences for murder sought new hearings because the crimes occurred before they turned 18.
Rothert said the state high court has the ability to fix juvenile murder sentences “one way or the other.” But Zahnd said he hopes lawmakers act as soon as possible because they are responsible for defining crimes and determining punishments.
Lawmakers are not scheduled to return and consider new legislation until January.