The trend by states moving to reject life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders continued this year when the Washington State Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional on October 18. In State of Washington v. Brian Bassett, the court noted that states were “rapidly abandoning” the practice, since youth are “less criminally culpable” than adults, and are less suited to the “penological goals of a life without parole sentence.”
As a result of the decision, at least a dozen state inmates who received life without parole sentences for crimes committed while minors received the right to petition for a sentence review. Besides Washington, twenty other states and the District of Columbia now legally ban juvenile life sentences without parole, and
Brian Bassett’s parents kicked him out of their home in 1995 when he was 16. Soon after that, accompanied by a 17-year-old acquaintance Nicholaus McDonald, Brian broke into his parents’ home and shot both of them multiple times with a rifle he had stolen. Then one or both of the teens drowned Brian’s five-year-old brother, who had witnessed the attack, in a bathtub. McDonald also shot Barrett’s father, who was still alive after Brian’s attack.
Charged with three counts of aggravated first-degree murder, in 1996 Brian was convicted by a jury and sentenced by the judge to three consecutive sentences of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which had already banned capital punishment for juvenile offenders in its 2005 Roper v. Simmons case, and in its 2010 Graham v. Florida decision barred life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of offenses less than homicide, in 2012 handed down its decision in Miller v. Alabama banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide.
Building on the earlier decisions, the high court reasoned that young persons have a lower level of legal culpability than adults for their offenses, due to immaturity and lesser impulse control, and it is difficult even for psychologists to identify which young offenders are incapable of rehabilitation, so it amounts to unconstitutional cruel or unusual punishment not to provide for that possibility. After the Miller decision, youth may be sentenced to discretionary life without parole in homicide cases, but only after the sentencing court, after a full hearing, determines the youth is permanently incorrigible and cannot be rehabilitated.
In response to Miller, Washington amended its sentencing law to require courts to take such factors into account and allowed those sentenced before mid-2014 to apply for re-sentencing. But when Bassett applied in 2015, after nearly 20 years in prison, he received the same sentence, despite expert testimony of factors contributing to his juvenile crime which were no longer present, and extensive evidence of his rehabilitation.
Aided by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other non-profit groups advocating sentencing reform, Bassett appealed his renewed sentence to two state appeals courts, arguing the state law adopted after the Miller decision ran contrary to that case, and a provision of the state constitution mirroring the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment. Both agreed with Bassett’s contention that a lifetime prison sentence without possibility of parole contravened a juvenile defendant’s constitutional rights.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.