Last week, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued two important decisions concerning the way our state imposes prison time on people who committed crimes when they were children.
In State v. Kelliher and State v. Conner, the Court reiterated that children are different than adults and that the North Carolina Constitution imposes “limits on the use of our most severe punishments for juvenile offenders, even for those children who have committed the most egregious crimes imaginable.”
The Court noted “the United States is the only country in the world that imposes juvenile life without parole sentences; such sentences are banned in every other country and prohibited by human rights treaties,” citing to Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina, 110 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 141 (2020), authored by Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law faculty and researchers Ben Finholt, Brandon Garrett, Karima Modjadidi, and Kristen M. Renberg.
These decisions by our highest court follow decisions from the United States Supreme Court that outlawed the use of the death penalty on children (Roper v. Simmons), the imposition of life without parole (LWOP) on children not convicted of homicide (Graham v. Florida), and the mandatory imposition of LWOP of children convicted of homicide (Miller v. Alabama). Given those precedents, the North Carolina court made several important holdings under the North Carolina Constitution:
“The rulings by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Kelliher and Conner are an important step forward for our state,” said Ben Finholt, Director of the Just Sentencing Project at the Wilson Center. “The Court has given children hope that their efforts to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation will be recognized, and are based on decades-old brain science that affirmed what all parents know: that children change rapidly throughout adolescence and should not be discarded.”