Nov 18, 2022 - News

Tennessee's harsh juvenile sentences ruled unconstitutional

Photo illustration of an open jail cell door, unlocked handcuffs, and a clock.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state's harsh sentences for juveniles convicted of murder violate the U.S. Constitution.

  • In a 21-page ruling, the high court outlined a process through which juvenile offenders can be considered for earlier release.

Why it matters: The landmark ruling has implications for more than 100 people in Tennessee currently serving sentences for homicides they committed as juveniles.

State of play: Under Tennessee law, juveniles convicted in a murder receive a life sentence that requires them to serve a mandatory minimum of 51 years before they are eligible for release.

  • That is the longest mandatory sentence in the country for juveniles convicted of murder.

Yes, but: The U.S. Supreme Court requires states to provide juvenile offenders a "meaningful opportunity" to be released if they demonstrate rehabilitation. Advocates argue Tennessee's life sentences violate that ruling and amount to life without parole for juveniles.

The latest: The Tennessee Supreme Court's ruling came in a case challenging the state's sentencing for Tyshon Booker, who was convicted of fatally shooting someone in Knoxville in 2015 when he was 16.

The high court ruled that automatically issuing a 51-year sentence to a juvenile "with no consideration of the juvenile's age and attendant circumstances" violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

  • In their ruling, the justices found that Booker should instead get a parole hearing after serving 25-36 years of his life sentence based on an earlier version of the sentencing law that was less harsh.
  • During that hearing, age and other factors can be considered while determining if he should get an earlier release.

"Compared to the other forty-nine states, Tennessee is a clear outlier in its sentencing of juvenile homicide offenders," the opinion read.

  • The opinion noted that Booker would have been eligible for release in 15 years if the crime had taken place in Alabama.

Zoom in: Three out of five justices agreed that the 51-year sentences were unconstitutional for juveniles. Justice Sharon Lee wrote the plurality opinion, joined by retired justice William Koch Jr., who sat in on the case after Justice Cornelia Clark died.

  • Justice Holly Kirby concurred.

"Our decision today directly affects Mr. Booker and over 100 other juvenile homicide offenders who are or will be incarcerated in Tennessee prisons under an unconstitutional sentencing scheme," Lee wrote.

  • Lee noted the decision only applies to juvenile offenders.

What they're saying: "This decision will allow Tyshon Booker and over 130 other men, convicted of crimes committed when they were children, to hope for and work towards a life outside of prison," Booker's attorney Jonathan Harwell tells Axios in a statement.

Between the lines: Tennessee's harsh sentencing for juveniles got national attention through the case of Cyntoia Brown-Long, who killed a man in 2004 when she was 16.

  • Former Gov. Bill Haslam granted Brown-Long clemency in 2019.
  • Haslam later said there were "too many juveniles serving too long" in Tennessee.

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