Ohio made a strong move Wednesday toward becoming the 24th state to ban sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when the defendant was a juvenile.
The handful or two of people already serving such sentences in Ohio, and a number of others serving de facto life sentences, could be eligible for parole if the bill is passed by the Ohio House and signed into law.
SB 256, sponsored by Republican Sens. Nathan Manning and Peggy Lehner, passed the Senate by a vote of 29-4.
Ohio would follow many others in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that held that automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole, often referred to as LWOP, are unconstitutional for those who committed their crimes before they turned 18.
Ohio inmates’ eligibility for parole under the bill would depend on the specifics of their cases, but even those convicted of aggravated homicide would be entitled to argue for release at some point.
The Supreme Court has made several decisions about severe sentences for juveniles in the past two decades, beginning with the 2005 abolition of the death penalty as an option. It followed five years later with a decision that banned life without parole for people convicted of non-homicides as juveniles.
In making its 7-2 decision in the 2012 Miller v Alabama case, the Supreme Court relied on scientific evidence that the adolescent brain is malleable – that kids can change and, given help, can outgrow criminal decision-making. Some states have yet to conform their law to the Supreme Court case but do not currently have any inmates serving LWOP sentences for crimes they committed while younger than 18.
The Ohio bill would require parole panels to consider multiple mitigating factors that they do not currently weigh when deciding whether to release prisoners, including the person’s age at the time of the offense and the number and severity of difficulties the person experienced as a child.
Judges would also consider similar factors in sentencing defendants who were very young when they committed sometimes horrific crimes. Even when people were convicted of a rape, act of terrorism, or aggravated murder committed when they were younger than 18, judges could not impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. And inmates who are denied parole would have another chance to argue for release a few years later.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have banned LWOP sentences for juveniles, according to recent research by The Sentencing Project. As of 2016, there were 2,310 inmates doing life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles.