Juveniles in Prison for Life? The Supreme Court Ruling and Second Chances

Image via Common Dreams

A juvenile as young as thirteen years old can receive life sentences in prison. However, after serving decades many “JLWOP” leave prison with their freedom. Furthermore, The Supreme Court offers hundreds of convicted juveniles a chance for freedom. Despite this landmark decision, many juveniles sentences are still profoundly long and harsh.

In 2010, a ruling declared life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional for all other convictions. In 2012, applying ‘retroactively’, meant essentially all juvenile homicide convictions occurring in the past had a chance of reduction. Rarely does the Supreme Court make its criminal law retroactive. However, this case proved a rare exception.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said that a life-without-parole sentence is always unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment for a juvenile offender unless the defendant is found to be “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible,” according to NPR.

NPR also states, What is most significant about the 2012 ruling is, “barring automatic life terms for juvenile murders, is the kind of rare new constitutional rule laid down by the court that must be applied by the states, not just prospectively, but retroactively too,”

Juvenile Lifers Receive Freedom 

Per the Philly Inquirer, Norman Bryant thought he would die in prison after receiving a life without parole sentence at the age of 15. In 1985, Bryant joined his older brother Kenneth and another 14-year-old friend in a burglary. They thought they were robbing an empty house in West Philadelphia.

Norman Bryant, who got a GED during his 32 years in prison is finally free. Image via Philly.com

According to his case, Bryant went upstairs, where he found Gertrude Jones, 82. He shoved her, went back downstairs, never telling the others she was home. Jones, died that day of a heart attack. The crime changed from robbery to murder, which carried a life sentence.

Bryant spent 32 years in prison; he was resentenced to 30 years allowing time served. Bryant’s life changed due to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions; one ruling that automatic life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles and the other requiring states like Pennsylvania – which has about 500 juvenile lifers, to apply that retroactively.

Statistically, Pennsylvania has the most juvenile lifers in the nation. Additionally, most juveniles who are resentenced have first-degree murder charges. Bryant is one of 175 juveniles statewide convicted of second-degree murder, according to the Philly Inquirer.

High Profile Case of Juvenile Justice: California Woman Who Killed Pimp As Teen Released From Prison Under New Juvenile-Offender Law 

Sara Kruzan Image via Crime Watch Daily

Kruzan’s story is heart-wrenching. Kruzan was 17 years old when she was sentenced to life for fatally shooting George Howard in 1994. According to Kruzan, Howard was sexually assaulting her at an early age and she began working for him as a prostitute at the age of 13 years old. After spending 19 years in prison she was set free, according to CBS News.

San Francisco Democratic Senator, Leland Yee, fought to ease life sentences for juveniles. Yee’s legislation became law in January of 2013 and later that month, a Riverside County judge reduced Kruzan’s conviction from first-degree to second-degree murder, allowing immediate eligibility for parole. In addition, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence to 25-years to life with the possibility of parole on his last full day in office, according to CBS News.

Juvenile Siblings Set Free

Curtis Fairchild Jones (12) and sister Catherine Jones (13) at their first appearance in court

Curtis Fairchild Jones, the youngest convicted killer (aged 12) was released at the age of 29 years old, after spending 18 years in prison. His oldest sister, Catherine also was released.

The siblings shot and killed their father’s girlfriend, Sonya Nicole Speights in 1999. The pair also planned to kill their father and another male relative, who they said was sexually molesting them. The Department of Children and Families identified evidence of abuse, however, no one believed them, according to USA Today. 

What is so overwhelming in this case, the siblings were facing life in prison. Florida’s prosecutors charged the youngest ever as adults with first-degree murder; they pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and accepted the sentence of 18 years and probation for life, according to USA Today.

“The story of siblings Catherine Jones and Curtis Fairchild is a tragic tale of several people and systems that failed these two young victims before dumping them in prison,” Ashley Neils, senior research analyst with the Sentencing Project–a Washington, D.C. based advocacy group working to promote changes in sentencing policy.

Curtis Fairchild is now an ordained minister.  Catherine Jones married a Navy Senior Chief, Ramous K. Fleming while in prison.

Juvenile Lifer Reoffends After Second Chance

Lionel Tate Image via CBS News

Receiving a second chance to re-enter society for inmates is life changing. There are so many incarcerated inmates that would love if they were the ones leaving prison behind. However, many inmates re-offend.

In 2001, Lionel Tate became known as the youngest person in America to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Tate was 12 years old when he was asked to watch Tiffany Eunick, 6 years old. During a wrestling move the 170 lb kid, stomped and killed the 48 lb girl. He later told his mother, “Tiffany isn’t breathing.” Tate claimed he accidentally killed the girl while imitating a pro wrestling move, according to CBS News.

In 2004, his murder conviction was overturned by an appeals court that said it was unclear if Tate understood the charges. He was resentenced by pleading guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 years probation. Tate is back in prison serving 30 years for gun possession.

Ex-Prisoner Series Released on OWN– Docuseries Released by Tribeca TV Festival 

There are so many stories of redemption of formerly incarcerated inmates that began serving sentences as juveniles. GCE is elated to read that Oprah Winfrey with the author, Shaka Senghor, Writing My Wrongs; Life, Death, and Redemption in An American Prison, executively produce Released.

“Winfrey and Senghor are both firm believers that “everybody has the ability retell their story and to be redeemed.” and so the concept behind Released was born.

The legislation is constantly changing and the beauty behind laws passing is the word, “retroactive.” If you have a loved one sentenced to prison as a juvenile contact an attorney, find out if they are eligible for resentencing and never give up the fight. We did not feature stories where juveniles were resentenced and a life sentence changed from life to a monstrous number like 213 years.  Please contact an attorney for a breakdown of the law.

Final thoughts, GCE suggests reading two major pieces of legislation; Firstly, Graham v. Florida explained by Equal Justice Initiative, attorney, and author Bryan Stevenson. Secondly, The United States Supreme Court decision 2010 and 2012 declaring life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.



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