In 2010, at the age of 16, Mahdi Hassan Ali committed a terrible crime in Minneapolis. During the course of a store robbery, Ali shot and killed three people. He was tried as an adult, and a jury found him guilty of two counts of felony murder and one count of first-degree murder. On the felony murder convictions, the Hennepin County District Court sentenced Ali to two consecutive life sentences with the possibility of release on each after 30 years; on the first-degree murder conviction, Ali was sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
In 2012, after Ali had been sentenced, the United States Supreme Court in Miller vs. Alabama ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments” bars juvenile offenders like Ali from being sentenced to mandatory life sentences without opportunities for parole.
In light of Miller, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned Ali’s sentence of mandatory life imprisonment and remanded the case back to the Hennepin County District Court for a new sentence. On Jan. 6, 2016, Ali was sentenced to three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release on each after 30 years. The sentences render Ali ineligible for release until he is 106 years old.
Shortly after the district court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a new opinion in Montgomery vs. Louisiana, which offered fresh insight into the Miller ruling. Montgomery explained that the court intended Miller to bar all sentences of life without parole, not just mandatory ones, for any but the rarest of juvenile offenders who were permanently incorrigible and unable ever to be reformed.
In both Miller and Montgomery, the Supreme Court repeatedly emphasized the common-sense notion that children differ from adults and should generally face less severe punishments for their crimes than adults do. Specifically, the court acknowledged that children are less culpable for crimes because they are naturally more impulsive than adults. The court also acknowledged that children have greater prospects for reform than adults do; according to Montgomery, the central intuition of Miller was that even children who commit heinous crimes can change.
Miller and Montgomery did not arise in isolation but were merely the latest in a string of high court decisions seeking to safeguard the constitutional rights of juvenile offenders.
Notwithstanding these decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court filed an opinion last week upholding Ali’s sentences of three consecutive life terms. In an opinion authored by the newly elected Justice Natalie Hudson, the Minnesota court decided that Miller and Montgomery apply only to single sentences of life without parole, refusing to extend the principles articulated in Miller and Montgomery to consecutive sentences that have the same effect.
Rather than requiring a special hearing to determine Ali’s prospects for reform, as Montgomery requires for sentences of life imprisonment without parole, the court decided that consecutive life sentences require no such hearing, even when they will likely result in a juvenile offender’s being imprisoned until death.
Last week’s opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court will offer state prosecutors a new tool when seeking to imprison children for the duration of their natural lives. For juvenile offenders convicted of serious offenses, prosecutors will seek lengthy consecutive sentences rather than seeking sentences of life imprisonment without parole. Under the opinion, this tack will obviate the need for a hearing to determine whether the juvenile is amenable to reform, regardless of the length of the child’s sentence.
Seven years have passed since Ali murdered three people. Since then, other children who were Ali’s age at the time of his crimes have received their driver’s licenses, graduated high school and college, and landed their first full-time job. They have matured and developed from children into contributing members of society. Regardless of what changes Ali might have gone through in the same time, last week’s decision ensures that Minnesota will not consider releasing him for 83 more years.
With Minnesota suffering from prison overcrowding, prudence suggests the state should make efforts to reform and release prisoners who pose no danger to society. The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that juvenile offenders are prime candidates for such policies because of their capacity for change. Will Minnesota listen?
Justin Cope is an attorney in Benson, Minn.