A look at juveniles and life sentences

Published: Feb. 9, 2016 at 5:34 PM PST
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When a juvenile commits a major crime like murder or sexual assault, many people believe the punishment should fit the crime. That may include life without the possibility of parole. Here in Nevada there are no juvenile inmates who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, but with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, it may be less likely.

In 1985, Reno teen Mary Yates was sentenced to two life sentences with the possibility of parole for helping plan the murder of her mother Jeanne. Yates was released from a Nevada State Prison in the early 2000s.

In December 2011, 13-year-old Jose Cruz was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for fatally shooting a man on California Avenue. That was after the man tried to prevent his friend's purse from getting stolen by Cruz and two other people.

“Overwhelmingly, people who go to prison leave prison at some point,” says Judge Egan Walker with Washoe District Court.

According to Nevada State Law, Cruz will serve approximately 15 years before he will be eligible for parole. Nevada's laws aren't as tough as other states when it comes to juveniles. Some states require a 40-year sentence before the minor is up for parole.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 stated juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole was cruel and unusual punishment.

While most states took that ruling as retroactive, others, like Louisiana, did not.

In December 2015, Louisiana inmate Henry Montgomery asked the court to look at his case. Convicted at 17 for killing a sheriff's deputy, the 69-year-old Montgomery says his rehabilitation in prison should allow him to be considered for parole.

”And the Supreme Court said the answer to that question is yes,” says Judge Walker, who presides over juvenile cases in Washoe County

Judge Walker says a decade worth of rulings from the Supreme Court indicates juveniles who commit major crimes may in the future be treated differently by the court system.

Justice Anthony Kennedy has said, "Children's diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change cast doubt on mandatory sentences." He added the most punitive sentences for juveniles will be uncommon.

Judge Walker says it’s counter-intuitive, but harsh sentences just make most juveniles more harsh.

“If the goal is knowing they are inevitably going to come out, to have a safer community, you've gotta address them in ways that work. And what we know is, punitive, retributive things don't work with kids,” says Judge Walker.

This isn’t to say the worst of the worst won’t have to serve longer sentences when compared to other juvenile offenders. Justice Kennedy has said the rare juvenile offender may not be helped by rehabilitation and life without parole is justified.