Missouri weighs changes to juvenile sentencing for first-degree murder

Missouri lawmakers must revise mandatory sentencing for juvenile charges of first-degree murder, since current sentencing has been found unconstitutional.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory lifelong prison sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. According to CBS News, due to this ruling, there is currently no constitutional sentence available to Missouri juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Over the last few years, attempts to change the current state sentencing have failed. Recently, lawmakers again considered changes that would make state law consistent with the ruling.

Proposed changes

The bill that was introduced earlier this legislative session allowed a maximum sentence of lifetime imprisonment without parole. However, the minimum prison sentence for juveniles between ages 16 and 17 was reduced to 50 years. For juveniles under the age of 16, the minimum sentence was restricted to 35 years.

Supporters of this bill contend that the minimum sentence of 50 years in prison is necessary. With a lower minimum, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder could theoretically receive less severe sentences than those convicted of second-degree murder. However, critics oppose this lengthy minimum sentence on the grounds that it still effectively sends juveniles to prison for life.

One lawmaker has proposed establishing shorter minimum sentences. The lawmaker has also called for legislation that would require judges to consider various factors before sentencing each convicted juvenile offender, including:

  • Mental health
  • Intelligence
  • Maturity
  • Age

Fortunately, disagreements between lawmakers and various revisions to the bill prevented the unduly harsh legislation from passing by the May 15 deadline this year. However, similar proposals may succeed next year. Proposals that provide for minimum terms of 50 years simply make no sense in the context of the rulings by the Supreme Court. Much of the Court's discussion revolved around the science that has identified the significant differences between adult and adolescent brains. An adult is quite simply wired differently that a juvenile. Statutes should reflect this science and should allow the offender to work towards rehabilitation, education, and readjustment to make an eventual return to the community of benefit to the offender and society.

The Science behind the Court's decision

As the Court and various briefs from the scientific and medical community explained, the part of the brain that controls reasoning and judgment is still developing during adolescence. As a result, juveniles are impulsive and vulnerable to strong emotions. They are more likely than adults to take risks and misunderstand or overlook the long-term consequences of their actions. They are also more susceptible to external influences, from peer pressure to stress.

Due to these factors, juvenile offenses may not always be indicative of whether an individual is a high risk for future offenses. For example, research shows that up to three-quarters of violent teenagers essentially outgrow the behavior. Additionally, juveniles are typically more responsive to rehabilitation than adults are.

It's imperative for juvenile sentencing to reflect these factors. Sentences that allow for the possibility of parole or shorter-duration imprisonment reflect the reality that juveniles may change or grow into essentially different people.

Addressing charges

Unfortunately, at present, juveniles often face the possibility of steep consequences after being convicted of various crimes, including ones less serious than murder. In all of these cases, it is vital for the juvenile and his family to work closely with their attorney, whether retained or appointed. An attorney may be able to challenge the charges or ensure that relevant information, such as the juvenile's age and intellectual ability, is properly presented to the court for consideration at sentencing and assist in determining whether his decisions were based on impulse rather than rational thought. There is a whole spectrum of possible attacks on these cases and a well-trained, well-schooled attorney can help the family navigate through these treacherous waters.

Keywords: juvenile, crime, mandatory, sentencing