Missouri Senators are being asked to consider two bills that would help determine the fate of Missouri juveniles who have been sentenced for first-degree murder.
In June of 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. The court specified that a juvenile may receive a sentence of life without parole if the jury was also presented with sentencing options. Missouri has no such sentencing options for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Juveniles are not eligible for the death penalty.
For the past two years, Missouri courts have been left without any legislative guidance. This year, two state lawmakers are attempting to fix Missouri sentencing laws by replacing the mandatory sentence with a couple of options for the judges to consider.
Senator Joseph Keaveny proposes a tiered approach to sentencing and resentencing based on age.
“We’ve been haggling for a couple years over what that second choice should be,” said Keaveny. “The Supreme Court has ruled in previous decisions that juries should be allowed at least two different choices.”
Keaveny’s bill would allow a sentence of at least 14 years and no more than 30 years for a person who was 16 or 17 years old at the time of the offense and a sentence of at least 12 years and no more than 30 years for a person who was under the age of 16.
After filing several bills in the past, Senator Bob Dixon is once again urging lawmakers to take legislative action this year.
“For the citizens, for the victims, for the taxpayer, for the accused, and for their families, and the sake of the criminal justice system, it’s very important that we move forward and provide options, so that these convicted felons can be sentenced,” said Dixon.
Dixon’s bill would allow a sentence of either imprisonment for at least 50 years or life imprisonment without parole for a person who was 16 or 17 years old at the time of the crime and a sentence of at least 35 years or life without parole for a person who was under the age of 16.
Officials at the Office of the State Public Defender say there are 84 juveniles currently serving life without parole. The proposed legislation would give them an automatic right to a new sentencing hearing upon request if their case isn’t final for purposes of appeal. The 84 will be new cases requiring expert witnesses to appear during the sentencing hearing at an estimated cost of $2,000 per case.
“To have 80 plus cases across the state and they can’t be sentenced, it’s very difficult to put that in words, the urgency that is facing the legislature, and that’s the case I’m going to make to my colleagues when we get one of these bills to the floor, or both of them,” said Dixon.
A Senate committee hearing was scheduled to discuss both bills at the same time this Tuesday, but that hearing has been cancelled due to weather. Dixon is the chairman of that committee.