In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences for anyone under the age of 18 who was convicted of murder. In January 2016, the Court expanded that ban by declaring the ruling was retroactive for over 2,000 offenders across the country. SCOTUS reasoning for the rulings is that juveniles should be treated differently from adults due to their maturity level and that the majority of them have the ability to change and should be given the opportunity to one day be granted parole.
The rulings have prompted attorneys throughout the U.S. to examine how the Court’s decisions may apply to other offenders not specifically named in the decisions, such as those who received non-mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole. Complicating the issue is the various mandatory number of years an inmate must serve before they are eligible for parole in each state. For example, in Michigan, an offender serving life may qualify for a parole hearing after serving 10 years. In Texas, he or she must serve a minimum of 40 years, while in Tennessee that number if 51. Each state also has their own process by which inmates’ request for parole.
This lack of consistency in the sentencing and parole process has led to some state supreme courts to issue their own interpretations. Some of the states where legal challenges have been filed include Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina.
There are three states – California, Maryland, and Oklahoma – that actually require every parole recommendation for an offender serving a life-with-parole sentence to be personally signed off by the governor of that state. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Maryland last year because there have been no paroles granted in more than twenty years.
Attorney Mark Sherman commented, “It’s well-known that the criminal justice system is in dire need of reform across the entire country. This is troubling that despite the ruling by SCOTUS, inmates who should be having sentencing reviews and parole dates set are sitting in prisons with no release date in sight.”