When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down automatic life imprisonment for juveniles and made the ban retroactive, it dangled a second chance in front of 2,500 such felons across the country, including eight in Minnesota.
But Minnesota should move cautiously on felons who were technically minors when they committed their crimes. Before the Supreme Court stepped in, some states handed out automatic life sentences to juveniles convicted of homicide. That was wrong. It created staggering costs for taxpayers and robbed young offenders of incentive to change.
There are valid reasons to give extra consideration to minors. It’s now known, in a way that was not clear decades ago, that risk assessment and impulse control in the human brain do not fully develop until the early to mid-20s. That, paired with an often chaotic, dysfunctional upbringing can result in young people with few inhibitions and a weak moral compass. In finding automatic life sentences unconstitutional, the high court held that a juvenile’s character is not as “well-formed” and that their traits are less fixed than an adult’s. They have both “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.”
But Minnesota already has heeded that reasoning. Life sentences have been reserved for the most heinous juvenile crimes. This state’s felons might have been a year or two short of legal adulthood, but their crimes were so grave that they may have forfeited any chance of early release.
Consider the case of Stafon Thompson and Brian Lee Flowers, who were 17 and 16, respectively, when they murdered Katricia Daniels, a woman they called “mom,” and her 10-year-old son, Robert Shephard. Daniels was stabbed 193 times while her son was held back, stabbed in the neck and hit over the head with a television set. Flowers has never acknowledged a direct role in the slayings and said in a recent interview, “I know I deserve to get out one day soon.” Both Thompson and Flowers were given consecutive sentences, so they would have to serve 60 years before becoming eligible for probation.
Mahdi Hassan Ali at 16 shot three people at the Seward Market in a botched robbery attempt. Sentencing him to three consecutive life sentences, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said he wanted to make sure Ali would never get out of prison. Nevertheless, earlier this month, one of Ali’s sentences was revised to 30 years and possible parole as a result of the Supreme Court decision. Because of his other sentences, Ali would not be eligible for probation before age 100.
Lamonte Martin was 17 when he chased down a teen and pumped a dozen bullets into him as the victim begged for his life and a young child witnessed the killing. Prentis Jackson shot a fellow teen in the head because he believed the boy was in a rival gang.
In Washington County, Tony Roman Nose, then 17, beat and stabbed a teenage Woodbury girl to death with a screwdriver. Officials there have expressed reluctance to consider a shorter sentence.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his county has begun an expedited review of its cases. The guidepost, he said, will be 30 years served before probation is even considered. That could make Martin and Jackson, who have single sentences, up for probation before age 50. The bar for proving their rehabilitation should be very high.
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that even among minors, some crimes reflect “irreparable corruption.” In Miller vs. Alabama, in which it first ruled automatic life sentences to be cruel and unusual punishment, the court specifically said its decision “does not require states to re-litigate sentences, let alone convictions.” Some juvenile offenders can be considered for parole, the court said, but prisoners who display an inability to reform “will continue to serve life sentences.”
More than anything, these cases point to the need to revisit sentencing overall in this state. The cost of locking up a juvenile for life is high — about $2.5 million. It is an option that must be reserved for those who show little capacity to become useful members of society. It will be easier to make such decisions if less costly and restrictive options are explored for lesser crimes or for offenders who are too old to present much of a danger.
“These are not garden-variety crimes,” Freeman said of Minnesota’s eight cases. “We have to take these juveniles, regardless of their upbringing, and do something to protect society. We also need to be humane and save money. Let’s save the lifetime sentences for the people who really need to be there.”
We couldn’t agree more.