Juvenile offenders in Hawaii could no longer be sentenced to life without parole under a bill scheduled for a vote by state lawmakers.
The bill up for a vote in the House on Tuesday would guarantee the possibility of parole to prisoners who commit first degree murder or first degree attempted murder before they turned 18. House approval would send the bill to the state Senate.
Passing the bill (HB 2116) would follow a national trend to scale back lifetime punishments for juvenile offenders since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, that mandatory minimum life sentences without parole are unconstitutional.
“The writing on the wall is the Supreme Court moving incrementally toward abolition of life without parole,” said James Dold, the advocacy director for the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He was in Honolulu to lobby lawmakers on the bill in February.
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juvenile offenders to life without parole, according to the advocacy group. It counts 2,570 such prisoners nationwide and at least four in Hawaii.
Several states, including Texas, Wyoming, California and Delaware, have recently passed laws to ensure juvenile offenders will have the chance at a parole review. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole violates that state’s constitution.
Hawaii’s measure would merely keep pace with those steps. Originally the bill was more ambitious, and included provisions to exempt juveniles from mandatory minimum sentences, guaranteeing a parole hearing for young offenders within 20 years.
The version that emerged from the House Judiciary Committee would eliminate only the most draconian of sentences, said Christiaan Mitchell, a student at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii and an advocate with other students there for children’s rights.
Because of the length of sentences in Hawaii, he said, a young teenager who commits murder might not be up for parole until past age 60, even if the law passes.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a largely symbolic step in the right direction,” Mitchell said. “We’re not going to be a state that sentences kids to die in prison. We’re just going to hold them until they’re not alive anymore.”
Prosecutors from the city and county of Honolulu conveyed “grave concerns” about the bill to the House Judiciary Committee. In unsigned written remarks from the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, they said the Family Court already provides fair sentences to young offenders. The Hawaii Paroling Authority likewise submitted testimony that stopped just shy of outright opposition, saying that it would like to see the measure held.