Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

How Long Is 'Life'?

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

How Long Is 'Life'?

Article excerpt

Consider two identical 16-year-olds Jack and Joe both convicted of the same serious crime not murder, but something more like armed robbery. They will both go to prison, probably for a long time, but let's suppose that they are sentenced differently. Jack gets life in prison, with no possibility of parole. Joe gets 100 years in prison, with the possibility of parole after 95 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 2010 decision called Graham v. Florida said that a sentence like Jack's is unconstitutional. You can't sentence a juvenile to life in prison for a non-homicide offense without giving him the chance for parole. To sentence someone like that, who is so young, basically writes him off, condemns him to die in prison.

"Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, "no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope." Jack may end up spending the rest of his days in prison, but he should at least have the opportunity for parole, at least sometime during his life.

What about Joe? According to a Missouri Supreme Court decision released last month, Willbanks v. Missouri Department of Corrections, Joe doesn't have to be afforded an actual opportunity for parole, even if under Missouri law, it seems pretty likely that he will die before he becomes eligible for parole. In other words, the state gets to run out the clock by giving Joe a sentence that is practically a life sentence, even if it isn't really one.

The facts of Willbanks are a little different from Joe's. Timothy Willbanks had committed multiple crimes, not just one, and under Missouri's complicated sentencing scheme, Willbanks could potentially be eligible for parole in his mid-80s. The court held that this (far-off) eligibility was enough to satisfy Graham's pronouncement that offenders be given a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release."

But one can see the problem almost right away. Timothy's life expectancy, according to one of the parties in the case, was about 79 years. He will probably die before he gets a chance for parole which, one would think, is precisely the thing that Graham was against. …

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