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Appeals question life sentences for Mississippi juveniles

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Joey Chandler

JACKSON, Miss. — A Mississippi man resentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder committed while he was 17 appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, raising more questions about whether the state’s judges are obeying a ruling that lifetime sentences should be “rare” for crimes committed by juveniles.

Joey Chandler , convicted of murder for shooting his cousin to death outside a Clay County nightclub in 2003, argues in a petition that justices should take up his case and order him resentenced for a second time because the trial court judge didn’t formally determine if he could be rehabilitated. The Mississippi Supreme Court rejected the claim earlier this year, ruling 5-4 that no formal finding is required of whether someone who committed a crime as juvenile is “irreparably corrupt.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that juveniles can’t automatically be sentenced to life without parole. The nation’s high court later ordered everyone who was held on such terms to be resentenced.

Mississippi at that time had 87 prisoners with no-parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. A report by the state public defender this month finds that of 44 people who have been resentenced, 13 again got life without parole, more than a quarter. Advocates argue that’s too many to meet the standard reserving such sentences for uncommon juveniles who can’t be rehabilitated.

“Statistically, I don’t know if one can come up with an exact definition of what ‘rare’ would be, but in my opinion, 26 percent doesn’t seem rare,” said Josh Rovner of the Sentencing Project, a Washington group that wants fewer people imprisoned.

Jacob Howard, a lawyer for the MacArthur Justice Center, is representing Chandler in the appeal. He argues that Chandler presented substantial evidence of rehabilitation in his resentencing hearing, including a clean prison disciplinary record, extensive work in prison education and vocational programs, and ties to his son and new wife.

“The trial court gutted the substance of the constitutional rule that only permanently incorrigible juvenile offenders can be sentenced to life without parole,” Howard wrote in Chandler’s petition. He wants another resentencing for Chandler.

Mississippi is one of five states that don’t require formal findings about a person’s ability to be rehabilitated, while seven other states require such findings. There’s also a split between federal appeals courts, which can encourage justices to take up a petition.

Of course, the chances that the high court will take any individual case are rare, although Howard is also representing two other Mississippi inmates who are making similar arguments. In the only case in which Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has filed a reply so far, his office argues that Mississippi judges have ruled correctly.

Nationally, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth says that 2,600 people convicted of crimes as juveniles were being held on life without parole sentences at the time of the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling in 2016. By January of this year, that number had fallen by half, the campaign says . Twenty states and the District of Columbia have banned such lifetime sentences, with 16 acting since the Supreme Court’s last ruling.

The Washington-based campaign wants juvenile life without parole sentences abolished. Executive Director Jody Kent Lavy said that when it comes to juveniles, “it’s impossible to determine they are irreparably corrupt.” That’s exactly what the late Justice Antonin Scalia warned in dissenting from one of the previous Supreme Court decisions.

Kent Lavy describes Mississippi as an “outlier” in its tough resentencing patterns along with Michigan and Virginia.

“These are places that historically have had this tough-on-crime approach, where prosecutors historically have carried a lot of weight, and they’re using that weight to buck the court,” she said.

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