Tennessee Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Imposing Life Sentences on Child Homicide

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Tennessee Supreme Court spoke out on Friday against a state law imposing life sentences on perpetrators of juvenile homicide, saying it was ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and a violation of the eighth amendment.

In the 21-page opinion, the judges noted that Tennessee was the only state in the nation requiring offenders to serve more than 50 years in prison before being considered for parole. Juvenile homicide offenders can be released before serving 35 years in most other US states.

Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee said Tennessee was “out of step” with the rest of the country when it comes to the severity of the sentences given to the offenders in question.

“Automatically imposing a minimum life sentence of fifty-one years on a juvenile offender without regard to the minor’s age and accompanying circumstances may, for some minors, offend contemporary standards of decency”, wrote Lee in the 3-2 majority opinion, according to The Associated Press.

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The Tennessee Supreme Court building is shown November 10, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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In a dissenting opinion, Justices Jeffrey Bivins and Roger Page argued that state courts should not make “general judgments of moral and social policy” and sentencing decisions should be left to the legislature.

According to the AP, Tennessee has been criticized for years for its “unusually harsh prison sentences for minors.” More than 100 people have been sentenced to 60 years in prison after being sentenced as children.

National attention was brought to Tennessee in 2006 when Cyntoia Brown-Long, who was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim at the time, was convicted of murder a 42-year-old realtor in Nashville.

In 2019, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam granted Brown-Long clemency, saying having to wait 51 years in prison for a parole hearing was “too hard.”

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Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the grand opening ceremony of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum April 15, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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After Friday’s decision, judges will now be able to adjust the sentences of minors convicted of first-degree murder. The court also encouraged state lawmakers to consider legislation that would allow for “more discretionary and individualized sentencing,” the AP reported.

Republicans currently control both houses of the state legislature and have pushed for tougher sentencing requirements.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said his office is reviewing the notice.

A man in prison puts his hands around the steel bars of a prison cell.
(Stock)

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The court’s decision stems from a 2015 case in which 16-year-old Tyshon Booker was convicted as an adult of the first-degree murder of G’Metrik Caldwell.

Under the new ruling, Booker’s 60-year sentence will now be eligible for parole after 25 to 36 years of service. His age and other circumstances may also be taken into account in any future decisions made.

The new decision does not mean that the sentences will be overturned.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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