Ending life without parole for juvenile offenders debated

Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·3 min read

Mar. 10—CONCORD — Advocates for children and civil libertarians said Wednesday it was time for New Hampshire to join a growing number of states that have eliminated a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile criminal.

Eric Alexander of Nashville, Tenn., was 17 in 1994 when he faced first-degree murder charges that, if convicted, would have carried life without parole.

Alexander pleaded guilty to two, 25-year sentences so he could qualify for parole. He was released in 2004 after serving 10 years.

Today, he's the senior advocate for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth that's working for enact the reform in states across the country.

"Not all youth will meet the parole board standard but they deserve the right," Alexander told a House committee hearing the bill (HB 632) Wednesday.

"If that person is too young to vote, too young to sign a contract, too young to serve in the military, then that person is too young to be sentenced to die in prison," said Preston Shipp, senior counsel for Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Moira O'Neill, the state's child advocate, said research has consistently confirmed that someone's brain is not fully-formed until they reach 24 years of age.

"Children may not have the capacity to realize the consequences of their actions," O'Neill said in supporting the bill.

"Children who commit the crime of homicide are often seriously abused and neglected. ... It's not entirely hopeless that children can become better citizens."

In New Hampshire, first-degree murder and capital murder are the only crimes that carry mandatory terms of life without parole for an offender of any age.

Juveniles must first be certified in court to be tried as adults before they would receive this punishment.

N.H. court moved to act

Over the past 13 years, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions, limiting these prison terms for juveniles.

The most recent came in 2012 when the court, in Miller vs. Alabama, ruled states could not have laws that mandate life with no parole for juvenile offenders.

Two years later, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its own ruling, ordering sentencing reviews for four juveniles who were given mandatory life terms; a fifth offender did not attend a hearing or ask his lawyer to pursue a lesser sentence.

Despite that decision, New Hampshire judges and juries still have the option to sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole.

Since the high court's latest decision, 24 states and the District of Columbia have eliminated life-without-parole sentences for juveniles; four other states don't have that punishment for anyone.

"What a life-without-parole sentence means is someone is ultimately unredeemable," said Jeanne Hruska, political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. "I don't know how we say that about a minor who is still developing."

Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland, and a former public defender, said a state prison inmate, who wouldn't qualify for this benefit, suggested he author this bill.

"This allows the victim's family and friends to possibly change their own thinking about what an appropriate sentencing and punishment should be," Berch added.

No one testified for the bill. A committee spokesman said 152 registered their support for the bill, while five were opposed.

klandrigan@unionleader.com