A recent Missouri Court of Appeals opinion, Tony Jones v. Missouri Department of Corrections, announced bad law based on previous bad law.
The opinion addressed an issue involving interpretation of Missouri’s “Miller fix” statute. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama concluded that the youthful characteristics of juvenile homicide offenders means they have reduced culpability and a far greater capacity for rehabilitation than adult offenders. Therefore, juveniles convicted of homicide crimes may not be automatically sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
Only after consideration of the factors of youth can the “rare, irreparably corrupt” offender be given that extreme sentence. In 2016, the Missouri Legislature enacted a statute remedying Miller violations by providing that juvenile offenders so sentenced are eligible for a parole hearing after serving 25 years.
The court in Jones held that, although such juvenile offenders are entitled to a hearing, they are not eligible for parole until they have served separate mandatory-minimums for any sentences imposed consecutive to the sentence of life without possibility of parole.
The court was troubled with the disproportionality between Missouri’s handling of homicide versus non-homicide juvenile offenders. The Missouri Supreme Court’s 2017 opinion in Willbanks v. Missouri Department of Corrections held that a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case underpinning Miller, Graham v. Florida — that categorically prohibited depriving non-homicide juvenile offenders of a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” — does not apply when it comes to consecutively imposed sentences.
Missouri ignores the aggregate-sentencing effect, even when the sentencing judge expressed the intent for the person to die in prison. Instead, the Eighth Amendment analysis is divide-and-conquer: As long as each component is short enough, Missouri ignores that the overall sentence deprives the person of any opportunity for release.
The result is that non-homicide juvenile offenders like Mr. Timothy Willbanks (and Bobby Bostic, whose crimes did not even result in a serious physical injury) are condemned to die in prison while the Miller-fix statute provides parole eligibility to those convicted of homicide crimes. To resolve this disproportionality, the court construes the Miller-fix statute as only guaranteeing a hearing but not eligibility for release after 25 years. Mandatory-minimums for consecutive sentences are added on top of the 25 years specified in the statute.
This makes no sense. First, the Eighth Amendment requires meaningful opportunity for release, not merely a hearing. Hypothetically, if Florida retained its blanket prohibition on parole but allowed for parole hearings every 10 years, Mr. Graham’s life sentence would still be unconstitutional. In assessing how long is too long, the significant date is eligibility for release, not eligibility for a hearing. Moreover, the Missouri statute for calculating parole eligibility for consecutive sentences facially seems to cap the total calculated mandatory minimum at 25½ years in any case.
Second, the statutory interpretation in Jones does not resolve the disproportionality problem created by Willbanks in many cases. In Mr. Jones’s case, even tacking on the two consecutive sentences for armed criminal action means he is eligible for release after a total of 31 years, while non-homicide juvenile offenders like Mr. Willbanks and Mr. Bostic will never be eligible. The “solution” does not eliminate the disproportionality.
The only reasonable solution is to understand that the Legislature intended that all juvenile offenders be eligible for release after serving 25 years. This intent is underscored by the statute’s complete elimination of life without possibility of parole as a sentence for first-degree murder for juveniles going forward. Furthermore, this intent is in line with the vast majority of other states and federal jurisdictions to have considered the issue of stacked consecutive sentences that are the functional equivalent of life without possibility of parole.
Missouri cannot resolve the disproportionality by refusing to remedy Miller violations. Rather than attempting to level down to the bad law announced in Willbanks, Missouri should level up to the intent of the Miller-fix statute and deem all juvenile offenders eligible for release after serving 25 years.
Joseph C. Welling, associate attorney at Phillips Black, Inc., and adjunct instructor at St. Louis University School of Law.