Tennessee Supreme Court Ends Mandatory Life Sentences for Kids

Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to automatically sentence a child to life imprisonment with no possibility of release
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The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on Friday that it is unconstitutional to automatically sentence a child to life imprisonment with no possibility of release for 51 years.

Tyshon Booker was 16 years old when he was arrested in the shooting death of G’Metrik Caldwell. He was tried as an adult and convicted of felony murder and aggravated robbery. He was automatically sentenced to life in prison, a 60-year sentence requiring at least 51 years of incarceration. The Tennessee Supreme Court held that this sentence violates the Eighth Amendment because a court sentencing a juvenile must have discretion to impose a lesser sentence after considering the child’s age and other circumstances.

The court relied on Miller v. Alabama, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles contravene the “foundational principle: that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.”

“Youth matters in sentencing,” Tennessee’s high court wrote, quoting U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Sentencing judges must be allowed to consider the defendant’s youth to ensure that the most severe sentences “are imposed only in cases where that sentence is appropriate in light of the defendant’s age.”

The court reasoned that three essential rules from Supreme Court precedent apply to life sentences: punishment must be proportionate; steps must be taken to minimize the risk of imposing a disproportionate sentence on a child; and these steps must allow the sentencer to consider the mitigating qualities of youth, including the child’s lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility, vulnerability to negative influences, and inherent capacity for change and rehabilitation.

“Tennessee is a clear outlier in its sentencing of juvenile homicide offenders,” the court wrote. In fact, Tennessee’s automatic life sentence is the harshest in the country. The state’s 60-year life sentence requiring a minimum of 51 years in prison denies any possibility of parole for longer than any other state.

And Tennessee statutes that require a juvenile homicide offender to be automatically sentenced to life imprisonment allow for no consideration of the ways in which children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. “In Tennessee, there is no sentencing hearing,” the court wrote. “There is no recognition that juveniles differ from adults. And the sentencer has no discretion to consider or impose a lesser punishment.”

The court concluded that Mr. Booker’s mandatory life sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. To remedy the constitutional violation, the court granted Mr. Booker an individualized parole hearing where his age and other circumstances will be properly considered after he has served between 25 and 36 years.

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