Lawmakers consider sentencing changes for juvenile murderers

(((This story was modified at 9 a.m. Tuesday to change the name of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which was mis-identified in the earlier version of this story. --- Bob Watson)))

Because the U.S. Supreme Court last year said it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles convicted of murder to life in prison without parole, Missouri lawmakers are looking at changing existing state law.

“We do not have the ability to sentence juveniles at this time” because of that ruling, Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, told colleagues on the Judiciary Committee Monday night.

“With this bill, we tier the penalties so that a person who is 16 or 17 years old at the time of the crime may be sentenced to at least 50 years, or life without parole.”

Dixon proposes a 35-year sentence, or life without parole, for people who were under 16 when they committed a murder, and tried as an adult.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has eliminated the death penalty for those individuals, and has said that where life imprisonment is the only option, that is not available, either,” Dunklin County Prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff, representing the Missouri Prosecuting Attorneys Association, testified.

“What this bill does is create a system whereby there are juvenile offenders — who, by their conduct and demonstrated actions have shown that they require to be incarcerated for the rest of their life.”

Sokoloff added that Dixon’s bill also gives juries “an option to sentence them to a lesser degree.”

He said he’s confident that the proposed law change would satisfy the high court’s ruling last summer.

But state Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, doesn’t agree.

“If we’re going to say that you’re not even eligible for parole until you’ve served at least 35 years — for the youngest offenders, and 50 for the older ones — you don’t have any concerns that will (also) be thrown out as unconstitutional?” she asked Sokoloff.

Justice, who is an attorney, thinks lawmakers should change Dixon’s bill so the options for sentencing juveniles convicted of murder either is life without parole or life with a chance for parole.

In Missouri, a “life” sentence is calculated at 30 years, and state law requires someone convicted of murder to serve at least 85 percent — or 27 years.

Sokoloff testified long sentences for juvenile murderers is “exceedingly rare.”

But Justus noted nearly 90 people are in prison for murders they committed while teens — and she doesn’t think that qualifies as “rare.”

Attorney Charles Rogers, past president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said MACDL opposes Dixon’s bill in its present form for several reasons.

He believes the Supreme Court said that something that was a mandatory sentence for juveniles was unconstitutional “because juveniles are different. Their brains are not as developed — that means that people with this kind of lack of development are not as morally culpable for the same act as an adult would be.”

He acknowledged the crime still is horrific, and that the convicted teen shouldn’t escape punishment.

Former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, now director of the Missouri Association of Social Welfare, said Missouri should follow the lead of several other states that are creating shorter sentences for juvenile murderers — such as 25 and 30 years rather than 35 and 50.

And Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference said sentences should “take into consideration their age” at the time of the crime.

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