Ga. legislators seek to ban life without parole for juveniles

The court’s opinion cited developmental differences between adults and children and their differing capacities for rehabilitation

Georgia legislators

Georgia lawmakers return to the state Capitol in Atlanta for the beginning of the General Legislature 2024 session. A bill was filed in the Georgia legislature Friday that, if passed, would ban the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole. (Natrice Miller/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Natrice Miller/TNS

By Allie Gross
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — A bill was filed in the Georgia legislature Friday that, if passed, would ban the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole — a punishment that Georgia has continued to aggressively pursue despite a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made the harsh sentence unconstitutional except in rare cases.

The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Yasmin Neal (D-79) and co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Wekheiser (R-157) and Rep. Tanya Miller (D-62), follows an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that found Georgia has seen a 100% increase in its number of juvenile lifers since the high court’s decision. The court’s opinion cited developmental differences between adults and children and their differing capacity for rehabilitation. The state leads the nation when it comes to doling out the punishment since 2012, and accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s new juvenile lifers.

The increase is placed in juxtaposition with the rest of the country, which is moving away from the severe punishment. Today, 28 states, plus the District of Columbia, have banned juvenile life-without-parole sentences, according to Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group. An additional five states still permit the punishment but have no juveniles currently serving the sentence.

“Over the past decade, we have witnessed a dramatic national trend away from sentencing kids to die in prison,” said Preston Shipp, Senior Policy Counsel for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Tennessee.

“Republicans and Democrats have worked together, united in the belief that we are all more than our worst act as a teenager and that we should never foreclose on hope for a child. When states like Arkansas, Texas, and West Virginia are in agreement with states like California, Connecticut, and Vermont, we can be assured that we are talking about a bipartisan issue,” he continued.

In May 2023 Minnesota became the most recent state to pass a bill banning the punishment. Last month Massachusetts — which banned the punishment in 2013 for those under 18 — extended the age range to include all young people up to the age of 21. It remains to be seen if Georgia’s new bill reflects a new bipartisan effort at the Gold Dome around the issue.

The AJC investigation last fall focused on the case of Marcus Battle to help illustrate the state’s practices. Battle was given the life without parole sentence in Fulton County in 2014 following his conviction of murder. The story highlighted an opaque and fragmented sentencing pattern, one that is out of sync with the rest of the nation and impacting individuals incarcerated before and after the 2012 ruling. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigation identified six trends:

- A national outlier: Georgia leads the nation in juvenile lifers sentenced over the past decade. Georgia is the only state to sentence more young people to life without parole after the Supreme Court restricted use of the harsh sentence than before. The state has sentenced 31 young people to life without parole since 2012. Of the roughly 100 juvenile lifers sentenced nationally over the past decade, more than half are in Georgia and Louisiana, which is second in the nation during that period.

- The state is flying blind: Georgia officials can’t accurately say how many juvenile lifers are or have been in the state’s prisons. The state has no reliable mechanism for tracking juveniles sentenced to life without parole. In more than one instance, the AJC identified individuals who were either incorrectly labeled as juvenile lifers or missing from official lists. The lack of data threatens the constitutional rights of some defendants and makes it more difficult to oversee and hold accountable local courts who may be misusing the harshest available sentence for juveniles. It also means the Georgia legislature has incomplete data when considering laws that impact the criminal justice system.

- Geography and judges matter: Since 2012, Richmond County, which includes Augusta, has sentenced six young people to life without parole, the highest number of any county in the state. In one instance in Richmond, the prosecutor’s office recommended that a teen get life with parole, but a judge ruled against this suggestion and gave life without parole.

- Race matters: Of the 31 young people sentenced to life without parole in Georgia since 2012, 25 — or 81% — are Black. This is an increase from the pre-2012 numbers when 60% of the state’s juvenile lifers were Black.

- Impulsivity dominates: While the high court said life without parole should be reserved for rare instances, an AJC review involving the 31 defendants sentenced after the 2012 ruling found that roughly half of the cases stemmed from incidents that could be categorized as armed robberies and carjackings or reflected spontaneous acts of gun violence. While disturbing — as all homicides are — these episodes, juvenile advocates say, often reflect environment, upbringing and impulsivity rather than forethought or advance intent. They typically don’t represent the rare circumstances the high court said the punishment should be reserved for, and ignore the fact that these young people are supposed to be uniquely capable of change. In one 2016 incident out of Columbus that led to a life-without-parole sentence, for example, the victim was shot in the leg during a robbery and died of a blood clot 11 days later.

Nobody has come home: In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 ruling, should be retroactive and juveniles who had been sentenced to die in prison before 2012 should have the chance to be resentenced and go home. Yet nearly a decade later, not a single person sentenced before 2012 had been released in Georgia, except for one whose conviction was reversed for unrelated reasons. Of 11 individuals who got new, parole-eligible sentences, nine had gone before the parole board by September 2023, and each has been denied parole. For a comparison, Michigan, which had the second-highest number of juvenile lifers, has seen over 180 juvenile lifers (over half of the total) go home already. According to Rebecca Turner, an attorney with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, nationally there were roughly 2,900 juvenile lifers when the Miller decision came down and about 35% had been released by Septemeber 2023.


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