The United States remains the only country in the world known to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole – a sentence to die in prison. Each year, children as young as 13 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without any opportunity for release. Approximately 2,500 children have been sentenced to juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in the United States. In Wisconsin, over 100 individuals are currently serving life sentences for crimes committed as children.
Yet, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that children are “categorically less culpable” than adults, and that judges must factor in age when imposing a sentence. In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole sentences for those under 18 constituted cruel and unusual punishment and were therefore unconstitutional. The Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana made this decision retroactive. These decisions highlighted decades of adolescent brain development research showing the fundamental differences between children and adults.
This legislation will align Wisconsin law with the brain science and Supreme Court precedent.
Specifically, the bill creates a sentence adjustment procedure for a “youthful offender,” defined under the bill as an individual who committed the crime for which the individual is being sentenced before he or she turned 18 years old. This bill also prohibits a court from sentencing a youthful offender to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or release to extended supervision, and creates new mitigating factors that a court must consider when sentencing a youthful offender. Finally, this bill eliminates statutory mandatory life sentences without parole or release to extended supervision for youthful offenders in order to align with federal constitutional law.
According to a fact-sheet from The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 28 states have banned juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences.