HELENA — Montana lawmakers heard testimony Friday on a bill to incorporate into state law a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found it unconstitutional to sentence most criminals under the age of 18 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Rep. Zach Brown, a Democrat, told the House Judiciary Committee that his bill would prohibit such sentences and require earlier and more frequent parole hearings for those convicted of sexual or violent offenses committed when they were juveniles.
“For me, there are so many checks and balances and opportunities in our system to keep bad people locked away and there aren’t enough opportunities to get people who have gone through change, or an evolution, an opportunity to re-enter society,” Brown said.
The committee did not act on the bill.
Under Brown’s bill, sentencing judges would have to consider “youth mitigating factors” such as a defendants’ age, family and social background and their ability to appreciate the risks and consequences of their behavior. The state Board of Pardons and Parole would have to “give great weight” to similar factors and the inmates’ progress toward rehabilitation in determining if the inmates should be paroled.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that juvenile offenders could not be subjected to mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole because it violates the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment unless a judge found them to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”
The ruling said sentencing judges should take into consideration youths’ immaturity, impetuosity and inability to appreciate the risks and consequences of their actions in handing down sentences. Justices said because the brains of children are not yet fully formed, children have a greater capacity for change and rehabilitation.
Brown’s proposed legislation would require youth offenders to be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years or less with subsequent reviews within three years for those convicted of sexual or violent offenses. Adults convicted of such crimes may be denied parole consideration for up to six years after hearings or reviews.
Nikola Nable-Juris with the Campaign for the Fairer Sentencing of Youth told lawmakers that 21 states and the District of Columbia have similar laws and that the bills passed unanimously in both houses in Nevada and North Dakota.
Republican Rep. Dennis Lenz made an apparent reference to the 1979 death of Kimberly Nees in Poplar without naming Barry Beach, who was 17 at the time of the crime and was sentenced to 100 years without the possibility of parole. He asked Brown if there were times when a sentence of life without parole would be justified.
Brown said he believes the criminal justice system evaluates horrific crimes very closely and considers the circumstances in prosecuting, sentencing and during the parole hearing process.
“If somebody is not truly rehabilitated, then I don’t think they get released,” Brown said.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock cited the 2012 Supreme Court ruling and Beach’s record in prison when commuting his sentence to time served. Beach was released from prison in November 2015 and will remain on probation through 2025
Beach has maintained his innocence and said his confession to the crime was coerced. There was no physical evidence linking him to Nees’ killing.
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