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Youth has constitutional significance: Ending life without parole

Sharon Wiggins died last year. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. This means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world. It’s the Pennsylvania way.

South Carolina has a better way.

A couple weeks ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court took the United States another step towards ending life without parole, LWOP, for those convicted of having committed crimes while juveniles. The Court’s decision in Aiken et al v Byar has been described as “notable for its breadth” and “groundbreaking.” It could be.

Fifteen South Carolina prisoners, including Jennifer L. McSharry, petitioned the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of their having been sentenced to life without parole, to death-in-life, when they were children. The Court largely agreed with the fifteen, arguing, “Youth has constitutional significance. As such it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”

The Court’s judgment is based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v Alabama, which decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. That decision built on, and expanded, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v Florida, which found that life without parole for juveniles who had not committed murder was unconstitutional. Each decision has expanded the space for decency, common sense, and humanity, and these from a Court not renowned for any of those qualities.

The South Carolina Supreme Court had to decide on whether Miller v Alabama was retroactive. That is, if it’s wrong today, does that mean it was wrong before we came to our senses? The Court answered decidedly Yes: “We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively. The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants— juveniles—from specific punishment—life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment.”

Sentences have consequences, and they too must be subjected to at least a constitutional review. There’s more to the South Carolina decision, and it all expands the application of Miller v Alabama. Would that earlier courts had decided that perhaps the impact of punishment should be thrown into the equation, rather than rely on mandatory sentences. Would that earlier courts had decided, and long ago, against a system that cared more waging a war on this and a war on that than it cared about the actual individuals and whole populations thrown into increasingly overcrowded, underfunded, toxic environments. Would that all of this had never had to come to courts at all.

Would that this had all happened long before Sharon Wiggins ever entered prison. Since 2008, the number of women sentenced to life without parole has risen precipitously, and who are they? “Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood.” They are the abandoned, the sacrificed. But the end may be near. For Jennifer L. McSharry in South Carolina and thousands of women across the land, a change could be coming. They stand a chance, a bare chance, of not becoming another such sacrifice.

 

(Photo Credit: TakePart.com)

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