On February 6, 2018, Virginia Senate Bill 890 passed the Virginia Senate in a 40-0 vote. This Bill would make juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment, or other long terms of incarceration, eligible for parole after serving 25 years of their sentence. The Bill is now pending in the Virginia House of Delegates. If it passes the House and is signed into law by the governor, it could go into effect this year.
The legislation appears necessary. In 2012 and 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases which held that imposing life sentences on juveniles without an individualized hearing to determine their capacity for rehabilitation, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. See Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016). Despite these rulings, only two Virginia inmates sentenced to life for crimes committed when they were juveniles have been resentenced (Randy Ross, resentenced to 99 years in Bedford and Akeem Majeed, resentenced to 26 years in Norfolk). Further, since these two re-sentencings, there have been a string of legal setbacks for Virginia inmates who received life sentences as juveniles and are now trying to have their sentences re-evaluated. See e.g. Donte Jones v Commonwealth, 293 Va. 29 (2017)(holding defendant need not be resentenced to a term of years under Miller where trial court had authority to suspend portion of imposed life sentence for capital offense) and Virginia v. LeBlanc, 137 S. Ct. 1726 (2017)(holding Virginia’s geriatric release statute, on habeas review, sufficient to cure Miller violation where statute allows an inmate to seek geriatric release at age 60 after having served at 10 years sentence).
If Senate Bill 890 becomes law, it would provide Virginia inmates who committed crimes as juveniles a remedy specifically approved by the Supreme Court in Montgomery. In that case the Supreme Court said:
“Giving Miller retroactive effect, moreover, does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole. A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them. See, e.g., Wyo. Stat. Ann. §6–10–301(c) (2013) (juvenile homicide offenders eligible for parole after 25 years). Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured—will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”
Montgomery v Louisiana, 577 US __(2016)(slip op at 20-21).
King, Campbell, & Poretz currently represents an individual seeking resentencing under Montgomery after having been sentenced to life in prison for offenses committed as a juvenile. If Senate Bill 890 becomes law, it will provide another way to fight for such clients – by presenting the most detailed and persuasive case to the parole board that their crimes represented “transient immaturity” and that parole release is appropriate and necessary to avoid an Eighth Amendment violation.