Court: Can ‘offend contemporary standards of decency’
Tennessee’s top court says it’s unconstitutional and cruel and unusual punishment to require sentencing of a juvenile to life in prison for murder, The Associated Press reports.
The decision noted Tennessee is the only U.S. state requiring juvenile murder defendants to spend 50-plus years in prison before being eligible for parole. Most other states allow parole in less than 35 years, AP noted.
The case involved Tyshon Booker, who at age 16 was tried and convicted as an adult for first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 60 years in state prison. In November, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.
“Automatically imposing a 51-year minimum life sentence on a juvenile offender without regard to the juvenile’s age and attendant circumstances can, for some juveniles, offend contemporary standards of decency,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee in a 3–2 majority opinion.
Arguing for the minority, Justice Jeffrey Bivins and Justice Roger Page said in their dissent that the state Legislature should make decisions about juvenile sentencing. Their opinion also warned that state courts should not make “broad moral and social policy judgments.”
Tennessee has imposed 60- year sentences on over 100 convicted children, the AP said.
The decision means Booker could apply for parole at some point between 25 to 36 years in prison.
Tennessee first drew national attention of criminal justice reform advocates with the case of Cyntoia Brown-Long, convicted of first-degree murder as a 16-year-old in 2006. Then-Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Brown-Long in 2019, calling having to wait 51 years for parole “too harsh.”
The office of Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti defended the law, the article said. A spokesperson for Skrmetti said that the office would review the opinion. According to the AP, Republican legislators, who control both chambers, have pushed for tougher sentencing.