Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
In 1988, George H. W. Bush successfully labeled his presidential opponent, Michael Dukakis, as someone who coddled criminals, setting the stage for the early 1990s, when politicians across the country tried to outdo one another in being tougher on crime.
In that climate, the United States became the only country to condemn people to spend their lives behind bars for crimes they committed before they turned 18.
Beyond Pennsylvania, two other states stood out for large numbers of juveniles sentenced to life without parole: Michigan and Florida. Neither has come close to Pennsylvania’s response to the Supreme Court mandate that such sentences are almost always unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.
In Michigan, prosecutors and victims’ families pressed to keep life-without-parole sentences in place. They pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2016 granting an exception "for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility."
They appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court seeking to preserve life without parole. That case delayed action on reviews of other sentences. On June 21, 2018, Chief Justice Stephen Markman, writing for the majority in Michigan, said that a trial judge doesn’t need to find any particular fact to keep juveniles behind bars for life.
"If the trial court simply finds that there are no mitigating circumstances, it can sentence a juvenile to life without parole," he wrote.
For Florida’s juvenile lifers, resentencing is likely only after a long imprisonment. State law and Florida Supreme Court decisions have followed the state’s "tough on crime" pattern.
Faced with a high violent crime rate, in 1995 Florida passed legislation mandating no parole for any lifer incarcerated after that date.
In 2014, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juveniles, legislators amended the law. Juveniles who committed murder would be eligible for review by a judge after 25 years.
After challenges seeking individual resentencing reviews, in 2018 the Florida Supreme Court put the matter to rest. It ruled that juveniles sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years indeed had meaningful opportunity for release, and thus are not entitled to further resentencing review.
Steve Harper of the Florida Review and Resentencing Project said it may still litigate the Florida Supreme Court decision. As he put it, "The Florida parole system is a joke."
In June 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a criminal justice reform package often criticized as lax. It represents an attempt to reduce the state’s massive prison population.
The bill also creates a task force to reevaluate Florida’s entire criminal punishment code, including whether the existing punishments fit the crimes.
READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s about-face
READ MORE: Parole in the hands of governors
READ MORE: Five Supreme Court decisions that changed sentencing for juveniles
About This Project
This work is a collaboration among the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service and the PBS NewsHour.
Web design and development: Camila Velloso
Reporting and writing: Athiyah Azeem, Victoria Daniels, Hannah Gaskill, Dominique Janifer, Lynsey Jeffery, Jamie Kerner, Lauren Perry, Sara Salimi, Delon Thornton, Emily Top and Camila Velloso
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Support for this project comes from generous grants from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.