A bill that would prevent minors from being sentenced to life without parole passed the House 86-1 on Tuesday. The legislation would also allow parole board hearings for prisoners who were sentenced as minors to life without parole for homicide offenses.
Senate Bill 294, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) and Rep. Rebecca Petty (R-Springdale), would largely ensure Arkansas law adheres to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that said juveniles should be treated differently from adults in sentencing. The decisions outlawed life without parole for all minors except those “whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” which the court determined was nearly impossible to know during sentencing.
The high court’s 2016 ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana made clear that the prohibition against sentencing minors to life without parole should apply retroactively for homicide cases. That would require Arkansas to resentence about 110 prisoners convicted of capital and first-degree murder as minors.
By giving prisoners a chance for parole board hearings, rather than resentencing them, and by clearing prison bed space of offenders who have been rehabilitated, SB 294 could save the state millions of dollars, Petty told the House.
But the bill, Petty said, “is not a get-out-of-jail free card” for those committing serious crimes as youths.
Juveniles would still have to serve a mandatory number of years for offenses that result in life sentences: 20 years for non-homicide offenses, 25 years for first-degree murder and 30 for capital murder. For all those offenses, “good time” — time reduced on a sentence for good behavior — would not apply. Those convicted would have to serve the mandatory number of years before becoming eligible for parole.
Two years ago, the House Judiciary Committee rejected similar legislation, largely based on the emotional testimony of Petty, whose 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1999.
This time she was a lead sponsor of SB 294, convinced of its merits after working closely with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national advocacy group.
“The decision to run this legislation was not any easy one due to my own struggles with the state criminal justice system, but I put a lot of time and heart and studying and energy into this,” Petty told the House.
The bill would also potentially avoid at least one legal battle by doing away with sentences that exceed an offender’s life expectancy, a de facto life sentence without parole.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court barred life without parole for non-homicide cases in its Graham v. Florida decision, but it did not explicitly forbid de facto life without parole for non-homicide cases.
That left a lingering question of how far someone could go in sentencing a minor for non-homicide offenses, Joshua Rovner of the Washington, D.C., research and advocacy center The Sentencing Project told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.
“Is [a] sentence of 99 years ‘life without parole’? The Court did not address that, but will eventually have to,” he said.
SB 294 would provide no relief to those already serving de facto life sentences for non-homicide offenses, while disallowing them in the future.
The bill would only apply retroactively to minors sentenced to life without parole in murder cases, a requirement explicitly outlined in Montgomery v. Louisiana. There have been conflicting state responses to these decisions concerning de facto life without parole for non-homicide offenses.
The Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that minors sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide cases in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham could be resentenced to the maximum sentence allowed by law. Judd Deere, a spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said, “Graham offenders who filed state habeas petitions seeking Graham relief were resentenced by the state habeas court to the maximum term of years that was allowed at the time the crimes were committed.”
SB 294 originally would have required parole hearings for minors already sentenced to life without parole in non-homicide cases, but the bill was amended in the Senate Judiciary Committee at the request of state prosecutors.
The bill now heads to Governor Hutchinson to be signed into law.
Lindsey Millar contributed reporting.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.