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TN High Court, 3-2, Voids Mandatory Life Terms For Teen Killers

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled a state law mandating life sentences for juvenile homicide offenders is unconstitutional, saying it is “cruel and unusual punishment” that violates the Eighth Amendment, reports the Associated Press. The justices declared Tennessee a “clear outlier” as the only state to require that juvenile homicide offenders serve more than 50 years in prison before they can be considered for parole. In most other states, they are eligible for release in under 35 years. “In short, Tennessee is out of step with the rest of the country in the severity of sentences imposed on juvenile homicide offenders,” Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee wrote in a 3-2 majority opinion. “Automatically imposing a fifty-one-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.”


Justices Jeffrey Bivins and Roger Page argued in a dissenting opinion that state courts should not make “broad moral and social policy judgments” and juvenile sentencing decisions should be left to the legislative branch.

Tennessee has long been criticized for its unusually harsh prison terms for juveniles. More than 100 people have been sentenced to serve 60 years after being convicted when they were children. Criminal justice reform advocates have cited the case of Cyntoia Brown-Long, who says she was a sex trafficking victim when she was convicted in 2006 of murdering a 42-year-old Nashville real estate agent. Brown-Long was 16 at the time. Former Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency in 2019 and said having to wait 51 years in prison for a parole hearing was “too harsh.” Under Friday’s ruling, judges may adjust sentences for young people convicted of first-degree murder. The court encouraged state lawmakers to consider allowing for more “discretionary, individualized sentencing.”

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