State Supreme Courts in New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington Confirm that Lengthy, Aggregate Term-of-Years Sentences May Violate Graham and Miller

By Tessa Bialek

In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court placed constitutional limits on the sentences that may be imposed on children. Together, the decisions require that sentences for children provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation”—except in the rarest of homicide cases where the sentencer determines, after giving mitigating effect to the characteristics and circumstances of youth, that the child is irreparably corrupt and rehabilitation is impossible. These decisions are offender-focused, grounded in an understanding of children’s reduced culpability and greater potential for reform, as well as acknowledgement of the particular hardship of a lifetime in prison for a juvenile offender. Therefore, as courts across the country have recognized, the protections of these cases extend to any child facing a sentence that denies a meaningful opportunity for release—whether for a single crime or multiple offenses.

Indeed, many courts nationwide have recognized that lengthy, aggregate sentences imposed for multiple offenses fall within the ambit of Graham, Miller, and Montgomery.  In recent weeks, several state supreme courts joined this growing chorus.  Recent positive cases include:

  • State v. Moore, 2014-0120, — N.E.3d —, 2016 WL 7448751 (Ohio Dec. 22, 2016) The Ohio Supreme Court determined that the defendant’s aggregate sentence of 112 years’ imprisonment, with eligibility for judicial release after 77 years, for non-homicide crimes violated Graham’s categorical prohibition against JLWOP sentences. The defendant would not become eligible for release until age 92, well beyond his life expectancy.  The Ohio Supreme Court explained that although Graham did not establish a limit to how long a juvenile can remain imprisoned before getting the chance to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation, “it is clear that the court intended more than to simply allow juveniles-turned-nonagenarians the opportunity to breathe their last breaths as free people.”  Instead, Graham sought to permit juvenile nonhomicide offenders the opportunity to leave prison and live part of their lives in society.  As the Ohio Supreme Court explained: “it does not take an entire lifetime for a juvenile offender to earn a first chance to demonstrate that he is not irredeemable.” The court further emphasized that Graham applies with equal force to an aggregate sentence imposed for multiple offenses: “To suggest that a life-without-parole sentence would be permissible for a juvenile who committed multiple offenses would be to ignore the categorical restriction against that penalty for juveniles who do not commit homicide. A court cannot impose a sentence that is barred because of the identity of the offender on the ground that the offender committed multiple crimes.”
  • State v. Zuber and Comer, 076806, 077318, — A.3d —, 2017 WL 105004 (N.J. Jan. 11, 2017) – The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the defendants’ aggregate sentences — for homicide and non-homicide crimes — of 110 years (with parole eligibility after 55 years, at age 72) and 75 years (with parole eligibility after 68 years, at age 85) violated federal and state constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. It concluded that these were de facto life sentences, depriving the defendants of any meaningful opportunity to obtain release, and were imposed without consideration of youth and its attendant characteristics as required under Graham and Miller.   The court confirmed that “Miller’s command that a sentencing judge take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” applied to all sentences “that are the practical equivalent of life without parole.”  This is because “[t]he proper focus belongs on the amount of real time a juvenile will spend in jail and not on the formal label attached to [the] sentence.”  Thus, the court made clear that “judges must evaluate the Miller factors when they sentence a juvenile to a lengthy period of parole ineligibility for a single offense” as well as “when they consider a lengthy period of parole ineligibility in a case that involves multiple offenses at different times.”
  • State v. Ramos, No. 92454-6, — P.3d —, 2017 WL 121541 (Wash. Jan. 12, 2017)The Washington Supreme Court held that the defendant’s 85-year aggregate sentence, for homicide and non-homicide crimes, fell within the ambit of Miller, which “clearly” applies to “any juvenile offender who might be sentenced to die in prison without a meaningful opportunity to gain early release based on demonstrated rehabilitation,” whether a sentence for a single crime or an aggregated sentence for multiple crimes. (Note that the court ultimately determined that the sentencing court had complied with Miller’s requirements and, accordingly, affirmed defendant’s sentence.)

These decisions, and others like them, recognize that the rationale underpinning the Supreme Court’s decisions and the protections afforded by those cases apply anytime a child faces a lifetime in prison without meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

Tessa Bialek is a Juvenile Justice Fellow with the Juvenile Sentencing Project at Quinnipiac University School of Law.