A bill has been heard in a House committee that aims to solve a problem with the sentencing of juveniles found guilty of first-degree murder in Missouri.
A 2005 Missouri Supreme Court ruling eliminated the sentence of death for juveniles. Then in 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when there is no alternative to life without parole, that is an inappropriate sentence for someone under 18.
Representative Stanley Cox (R-Sedalia) says that leaves it up to the state legislature to put an alternative in the law, and his bill (HB 1560) proposes one.
“The choices will be that they can have life without parole,” says Cox, “Or alternatively … they can have a sentence of 50 years without parole and then be subject to parole.”
Representative Rochelle Walton Gray (D-Black Jack) says that’s not much of a choice.
“When you say 50 years you may as well be saying life for an 18 year-old, or anyone older than that, as a matter of fact, so you’re really not trying to give any other options for the most part,” Walton Gray says to Cox. “It’s just that you know that with the decision that was made you have to come up with an option as far as the Court is concerned.”
Joplin attorney William Fleischaker says Cox’s proposal misses the intent of a Supreme Court ruling in 2012.
“You can’t automatically sentence a youthful offender to life without parole and, in my opinion, the equivalent of life without parole,” Fleischaker tells the committee, “Without considering various youth-related factors.”
The lack of an alternative is what attorneys for Alyssa Bustamante cite in a recent hearing in which she seeks to vacate her guilty plea in the 2009 murder of her 9-year-old neighbor, Elizabeth Olten. Bustamante’s lawyers argue that the lack of an alternative to life without parole intimidated her into agreeing to a guilty plea. Those lawyers cite the same 2012 Supreme Court case, Miller vs. Alabama, that Cox references in support of his bill.
No vote has been taken on Cox’s bill.