By Alexandria Staubach
Last week a bipartisan group of more than 30 lawmakers introduced a bill to end sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles.
The bill, Senate Bill 801, also creates new mitigating factors for a sentencing court to consider, recognizing that juveniles change and mature mentally and emotionally over time. The bill would apply retroactively to anyone currently serving a juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) sentence.
If enacted, SB 801 would bring Wisconsin in line with 28 states already banning JLWOP sentences, including three of Wisconsin’s closest neighbors: Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.
Ruling in Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court held it unconstitutional for a court to impose JLWOP on non-homicide juvenile offenders; the court found that such a sentence violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles no matter the severity of the crime.
SB 801 states that its purpose is to clarify that “the statutory mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or extended supervision for repeat offenders does not apply to youthful offenders,” consistent with Miller.
JLWOP sentences are unique to the United States; we are the only country in the world with such a practice.
According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, the practice is permitted in 22 states, including Wisconsin and Michigan. In five states the practice remains on the books without active sentences.
Michigan has the highest JLWOP population in the nation and recently made national headlines for sentencing 17-year-old Ethan Crumbly, who committed Michigan’s deadliest school shooting at age 15, to life without the possibility of parole.
However, Wisconsin outpaces Michigan regarding overall number of youth incarcerated on life sentences with or without parole (141 compared to 65) and sentences over 40 years (73 compared to 15) as well as the total number of children in adult prisons (1,709 compared to 554), according to a 2021 report produced by the nonprofit Human Rights for Kids.
The following table shows the bill's sponsors.
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