Supreme Court Juvenile Life Sentences Decision & Arkansas Legislative Battles

Jan 25, 2016

US Supreme Court building.

The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that all juveniles serving mandatory life sentences without parole, of which Arkansas has over 50, can challenge their punishment. In 2012 the nation’s highest court banned the future implementation of such sentences but did not apply it retroactively. However, last summer the Supreme Court of Arkansas did just that and 57 cases are under review.

While mandatory life without parole is now off the table for juveniles the possibility of life without parole remains. State Representative Greg Leding tried unsuccessfully during the 2015 regular legislative session to end juvenile life sentences without parole altogether as an option. The Fayetteville Democrat told KUAR it’s an issue that conservatives elsewhere embrace.

“The US Conference of Catholic Bishops supports it, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich supports it, states like Texas and Wyoming had already addressed this issue,” said Leding. “Those aren’t exactly hotbeds of liberalism.”

State Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville).
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR News

But the majority of conservatives in the Arkansas General Assembly are not so inclined to rid prosecutors of the juvenile life without parole option. Leding’s bill passed in committee but fell victim to a 29-53 vote in the House.

State Representative Dave Wallace , from Leachville in Mississippi County, is one of the Republican majority that voted to keep life without parole sentencing for juveniles. Wallace pointed to his experience in the Vietnam War as driving his belief that juveniles should be sentenced like adults in some instances.

State Rep. David Wallace (R-Leachville).

“I was in a tough war. I saw folks that were very young capable of a lot of violence. We’ve got a number out there, and that age says this person is a child but then two days later they can be an adult.” said Wallace.

Representative Leding said following the Supreme Court ruling he revived his talks with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth to craft another attempt in the 2017 regular legislative session. He said it’s a matter of science.

“The brains of youth are actually different than those of adults. We don’t fully develop our brains until we’re in our early 20s. It is possible you might not fully be thinking about the long-term consequences of your decision when you’re 15, 16, or 17,” Leding said as part of an argument that children are redeemable.

Representative Wallace said that generally he thinks some of his colleagues are simply paying too much attention to the rights of the convicted.

“What I worry about are the victims. I worry about the folks that were murdered and their families. I don’t think we give enough attention to that. We worry about the rights of the criminal instead of the rights of the victim,” said Wallace.

Both Representative Wallace and Leding say looking at sentencing reforms across the board is increasingly important since Arkansas’s prison system is over-capacity.