On Monday, Feb. 11, the Duke Criminal Law Society and Duke Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett (pictured speaking at the lectern stand on the right) hosted a panel discussion regarding their newest study, “Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina.” The panel featured (seated from left to right) David Andrews of the Office of Appellate Defender, Ben Finholt of N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, and N.C. State Representative Pricey Harrison.
The event opened with an introduction of the panel by Garrett, before panelists presented their own perspectives on the issue of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) and the study released by Garrett and his colleagues.
Harrison emphasized the negative economic impact JLWOP has on N.C. She reinforced the argument that juveniles could contribute much more to society if given the opportunity to get an education and job, rather than being held in a facility on hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for a lifetime.
Finholt pointed out the State’s abuse of JLWOP. “So far, as far as we know with the data we have, there has not been a single JLWOP resentencing hearing where the option of LWOP was on the table and the State has consented to taking it off the table,” he said. “In every single resentencing hearing where LWOP is an option, the State has sought LWOP. Every single time. And I don’t think that matches what the U.S. Supreme Court has told us is supposed to happen in Roper, Graham, Miller, Montgomery. I think in the whole line, it’s pretty clear that this should be rare. This should only be used in exceptionally bad circumstances, and I think that is generally the way it has not been handled.”
Andrews also touched on Miller and its implications, disproportionate minority contact, and reform.
“When we talk about juvenile life without parole, we are talking about Miller v. Alabama,” Andrews said. “What I love about this report that we have now, from Professor Garrett and all the other authors, is that it gives us perspective… What’s interesting to me is that there is a disproportionate impact that this sentence has on race. Children of color, these are the individuals who get LWOP. There is a disproportionate impact on children of color. We also know from the report that once a county imposes JLWOP, it is more likely to impose that sentence again. It becomes entrenched.”
Andrews said from the perspective of trial attorneys dealing with JLWOP cases, they should pursue school records, interviews with family members, DSS records, and experts in fields such as adolescent brain science to dissuade a judge from sentencing a child to LWOP.
Andrews posed the question that really hit the core of the issue at hand, asking “Do we really want to sentence kids to die in prison?”
After every panelist had the opportunity to speak and before engaging in a question and answer session with members of the audience, Garrett reiterated the issue. He pointed out that in the study, one-third of the individuals sentenced to LWOP were not the killers or had no intent to kill, but were convicted under a felony murder theory.
In response to one question about the discussions between legislators regarding juvenile justice, Harrison stated, “There are legislators who are considering continued reforms. I know that many of us felt like Raise the Age… was an important first step and it took us nearly 15 years to really get on that. It still needs work and I think that there are legislators interested in that and other juvenile justice issues… There’s a lot going on. It’s a different climate right now, but it is a little more conducive to making some of these improvements.”
In regards to Raise the Age and the impact he thought this study could potentially have on possible reforms going forward, Garrett said, “To kind of fix that you need to solve this juvenile life without parole problem. In some ways it’s about the past. And I think fixing that problem is a money-saver, but also highlights this moral issue that there should be a possibility of redemption, of rehabilitation for all juvenile sentences… In some ways it’s a completely different question to Raise the Age. It’s not about adult court versus juvenile court. It’s just that there should be meaningful review for long juvenile sentences, no matter what the circumstances. I think that it’s just a sensible position for the State to have. It’s the right moral position, it follows the science of juvenile brain development, and it’s not inflexible.”
Garrett stated that the JLWOP study was just one of the projects he and his students were working on, including a traffic court study, parole, and non-juvenile life without parole. He said this just happened to be one of the first they presented publicly. To read the report and more from Duke Law’s JustScience Lab, please go here.
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