Juvenile life sentence bill would be a return to outdated thinking

Oklahoma’s parole system has been broken for years. In most states, parole is the most common form of release from prison; it allows a person to serve a portion of their sentence under community supervision to provide accountability while they readjust to society. But despite now having the highest incarceration rate in the country, at 990 inmates per 100,000 residents, we have among the lowest rates of people being supervised on parole. There were 6,218 people in prison for nonviolent offenses sitting in Oklahoma prisons who had passed their first parole date at the end of 2017.

Members of Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board are currently required to have experience in the criminal justice field, which has limited the board to mostly judges and law enforcement officers, who tend to have punitive attitudes. To begin to address this, SB 1221 was introduced to require that all Board members receive training on best practices for reforming criminal behavior and that two members have experience in mental health services, substance abuse services, or social work. 

After quietly passing the Senate, however, SB 1221 was amended on the House floor to include a process to allow juvenile offenders as young as 13 years old to be sentenced to life without parole. The thinking behind the amended SB 1221 is severely misguided, moving against a strong national current that has seen many states ban life without parole for juveniles.

The Supreme Court has steadily imposed new restrictions on juvenile sentencing

Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided several cases that limited the punishments that can be imposed on juveniles convicted of serious crimes. After banning the death sentence for juveniles, the Court banned life without parole for juveniles except for those convicted of homicide. The Court then ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. This doesn’t mean that juveniles can’t be sentenced to life without parole, but it does mean that judges are required to take the defendant’s age into account when sentencing them.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s rulings, 28 states changed the way they deal with juveniles convicted of homicide. The 24 states that previously required mandatory life without parole repealed those laws and instituted mandatory minimums ranging from 15 to 40 years. As the map below shows, four of the states that border Oklahoma – Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas – have banned juvenile life without parole. The remaining two – Missouri and New Mexico – have not banned the practice, but as of 2017 had no people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole in their prisons.

Source: The Sentencing Project

Amendments to SB 1221 reflect thinking that is opposite of the original bill

The amendments offered by House Speaker Pro Tem Harold Wright were carefully worded to get around the Supreme Court’s rulings. It reserves juvenile life without parole for first degree murder, requires that the defendant undergo a psychological evaluation, and forces the judge to consider the defendant’s age, maturity, brain development, substance abuse, and other characteristics.

Representatives critical of the amendments also pointed out that the SB 1221 would lower the standard of evidence required for a judge to impose a life without parole sentence from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “the weight of evidence,” a lower standard to achieve.

While the process set up in SB 1221 complies with recent Supreme Court rulings that require judges to take into account a juvenile offender’s age and maturity before sentencing them to life in prison without parole, it would take Oklahoma in the opposite direction from most other states. As our neighbors move to ban juvenile life without parole completely, SB 1221 would ensure that the sentence remains available for zealous prosecutors to seek lifelong imprisonment for teenagers.

Juvenile life without parole is problematic for many reasons. Committing serious crimes at a young age is tied closely to being abused and witnessing violence, which are factors beyond a young person’s control. As with every other part of the justice system, black defendants are much more likely to receive life imprisonment as juveniles compared to white defendants. Youth sentenced to life without parole are imprisoned before they are even given the privileges that mark adulthood in the U.S., like voting, serving on a jury, or buying tobacco or alcohol. At these young ages, the brain has not fully developed, which raises serious questions about whether it is ever just or practical to sentence a juvenile to life in prison.

Moreover, banning life without parole does not necessarily mean that all juveniles convicted of serious crimes would eventually get out of prison. It merely means that they would be granted the opportunity for a review before the parole board, at which point the board could take into account the person’s rehabilitation and maturation.

Gov. Fallin should reject SB 1221 if it contains provisions to guarantee a path to juvenile life without parole

The Pardon and Parole Board certainly needs mental health and substance abuse professionals to offer perspectives on changing the criminal behavior of the applicants they consider. Oklahoma’s broken parole system was opened up greatly when the Governor signed HB 2286 last week, and it would benefit from perspectives outside of the judges and law enforcement personnel that have dominated the board.

Unfortunately, the amendments introduced during House debate poison that bill with outdated thinking that would preserve a path to impose life imprisonment for juveniles, despite the Supreme Court’s steady march toward limiting that practice. Oklahoma would be much better served by following the example of our neighbors and banning juvenile life without parole altogether.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

8 thoughts on “Juvenile life sentence bill would be a return to outdated thinking

  1. Passing the bill with this provision would be sending us back to the uneducated dark ages in terms of evidence and humanitarian based sentencing. It also contradicts the will of the people who voted for just sentencing in Oklahoma. Why do our legislators refuse to look at the evidence, the will of the people, and basic common sense? How can we find it just to throw away the key on a juvenile? This kind of thinking is what holds us back as a state and makes us a joke in the eyes of enlightened, intelligent citizens of the world.

  2. So, WHEN did lawmakers SNEAK this law past the voters that your article mentions??? (Members of Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board are currently required to have experience in the criminal justice field, which has limited the board to mostly judges and law enforcement officers, who tend to have punitive attitudes). Ten years ago regular lawyers (NOT District Attorneys & Judges) made up much of the Parole Board. THIS so called RULE or LAW needs to be REPEALED ASAP! The courts always held “Before one’s peers.” The Parole Board Members should be from many walks of life and NOT District Attorneys & Judges, which is a MAJOR CONFLICT of INTEREST! (Not smiling)

  3. Never ending punishment is bad for juveniles as well as adults. If the crime is not deserving of death, then the offender needs to be in and out of prison in less than five years. That might sound crazy to some, but multiple studies have shown that inmates become institutionalized in three to five years of being incarcerated. Once the inmate becomes institutionalized, incarceration is no longer a punishment to the offender. At that point, the tax payers get deminished returns on their tax dollars paying for the incarceration. This is true for violent and non-violent offenders.

  4. This is because Oklahoma is owned by republicans and they do not know what forward thinking is, they can only think backwards. They are trying desperately to move Oklahoma back to their happy times in the 1860’s.

  5. What are these people thinking of this is wrong, a person’s mind does not fully developed until the age of 25 this is all wrong. These kids need a chance and giving them life without parole is hiddious. We have no idea what the situation this came about , the child could be Phsyically abused mentally abused or emotional abused. You think that this child will ever do this again, heck no he is free of his predator even if he had to kill him. Circumstances arise all the time and the courts don’t take consideration of what is going on, sentence them and put them in prison and lock the door for the rest of their lives. what is that going to accomplish making him a criminal in prison,wrong wrong wrong. That is not going to prove anything just keeping them in their longer. That is not the answer the answer these kids have problems and they need counseling and let them wear a ankle monitor and monitor what they do make them call and check like they are probation but not prison. Make them go to a kids detention center to get the help he needs but the kid does not need to stay in prison for the rest of his life. The Parole board is a joke they need ordinary people not judges lawyers police officers, that is not fair to the family and the inmate. we have wasted enough of the tax payers money these inmates needs a break especially the ones who have been in for a long time a chance to live out here with conditions as any other. Its called Second Chance and everyone deserves one!!!!

  6. My husband got life at the age of 15 an now at 41 he is still there they want let him go and he has done his time… I just don’t know what to do…..

  7. Has the Juvenile HB 2nd chance Bill passed yet? My husband has been in prison for 27 years, he went in at age 16. He has done everything to better himself, he’s gotten his GED and a list of other classes and certificates. He is well liked by his peers, they often go to him for help and advice. He deserves a 2nd chance at life.

  8. My little brother was convicted of his crime a week before his 18th birthday and is still incarcerated today at the age of 45. He is considered the “old man” and helps the new guys as they come in to get them acclimated to their surroundings so they don’t get in trouble and to help them survive their new prison life. He has, as he says, seen it, walked it, compromised, negotiated, represented, stood up for, and even counseled his fellow cellmates. He is very aware of his crime and has taken full responsibility for what he did, made amends and just wants to come home. We all feel that after 27 years he has done more than enough time to pay for what he did. Staying in prison longer is not going to bring back the young man that the other family lost and we all have suffered and asked for their family’s forgiveness. It has destroyed their family as well as ours. My mother and I spent many years putting flowers on the young man’s grave, standing and crying, praying and asking that God would soften the heart of their family so that they could find peace to forgive our family and my baby brother for the murder of their son. Both of my parents have gone on to heaven and its just me and my older siblings now. The pardon and parole system in Oklahoma is a shamble and a joke. I paid a substantial amount to hire a former judge to represent us on his last parole hearing to only find his last jacket had only been copied from the prior update, as all the information was EXACTLY the same, and only the date had been changed, and was then signed off by the officer on duty. Being educated, I called the prison to confront him and upon speaking with him to inquire about him pulling my brother out for his “legally required interview” was told they have “too many inmates and not enough staff” to meet with everyone to update their jackets and he had no further time to discuss the matter with me. Then, when it was time for submission of all personal references, the lawyer’s cover letter, my brother’s bio, family’s referral letter, etc. we were told he could only submit around 10 pages total. How can a person adequately put together someone’s “BIG MOMENT” in less than 10 pages? Very disappointing to say the least and to put forward that kind of money. It’s a sham and a complete farce. And then to NOT even be given a chance to have your case applied toward the 2012 U. S. Supreme Court Ruling because your state monkeys around with provisions to the law. There’s always a way around things. Well, there’s one thing I can tell this state…us loved ones NEVER give up, EVER! We are persistent with our fight when it comes to injustice being done to those we love. So the fight goes on and the prayers are never ending….so in the end we will win one way or the other and my brother will be coming home….I know it and so does he!!

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