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But without capable lawyers to handle the hearings, the court’s humane ruling is unlikely to matter for those serving a mandatory life sentence received as a juvenile.
The constitutional right to counsel in criminal trials does not apply to these sentencing reviews because the offenders have already been convicted. But they can’t initiate a review if they cannot afford a lawyer. That’s why the federal government and the 28 states affected need to provide them with lawyers as a moral right.
And not just any lawyer. The court said juveniles have a less developed sense of responsibility and should not necessarily get the same punishment as adults. The hearings will require lawyers with training in psychology and human development to argue convincingly that an offender’s record supports reducing a life sentence — including what Justice Elena Kagan, in her majority opinion, called a juvenile offender’s “immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity” at the time of the crime.
In addition, states must provide funds for expert witnesses to help the lawyers do their job, as is now required in the sentencing phase of death penalty cases, where mitigating factors are weighed.
Almost one-quarter of those serving mandatory life sentences have been in prison for 21 years or longer. For them, Justice Kagan said, a state must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
In many cases, the offender’s young age and a history of being abused, for example, were so striking that judges said during sentencing that they were imposing mandatory life without parole because they had no choice. States should ensure that these offenders receive new hearings and the assistance of effective counsel.
**This information is being shared by Citizens for Prison Reform for purely informational purposes.
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