The Fair Punishment Project has filed an Amicus brief on behalf of James Comer, who is challenging the constitutionality of the lengthy term-of-years prison sentence imposed upon him for offenses committed as a seventeen-year-old. Mr. Comer was sentenced to seventy-five years imprisonment, with an opportunity for parole only after sixty-eight years and three months. His term is the sum of four sentences that the trial judge, at his discretion, directed to run consecutively.
The Fair Punishment Project urges the Court to find that this severe sentence violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it ignores the fundamental differences between children and adults that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held are constitutionally relevant to juvenile sentencing, and is therefore disproportionate in light of Mr. Comer’s status as a juvenile at the time of the offense. Cribbing from the amicus:
“Rather than incrementally walking back the permissible mandatory length of juvenile sentences, this Court should recognize that the logical conclusion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s juvenile sentencing decisions is to provide for mandatory reassessment of all juvenile sentences at a point in time when neurological brain development and identity formation are likely to be sufficiently advanced that a more accurate assessment of culpability and character can be made.”
“The relevant scientific evidence identifies the approximate age of 25 as the point in time when neurological brain development and identity formation may be sufficiently advanced to eliminate the “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds” that reduce a child’s culpability and impair a trier-of-fact’s ability to impose proportional punishment with any accuracy. See Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2464 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 68). Therefore, the appropriate point in time to begin the follow-up inquiry into the status of a juvenile offender is no later than 10-15 years after sentencing, when the juvenile offender is in his late twenties or early thirties.
“A trial court is no better suited to decide whether 50 years is an appropriate sentence for a child offender than it is to determine that life in prison is appropriate. Even if a severe sentence is ultimately warranted, such a sentence cannot be justified when imposed on a juvenile before the age of maturity without subsequent opportunities for review. See Graham, 560 U.S. at 73 (“Even if the State’s 23 judgment that [an offender] was incorrigible were later corroborated by prison misbehavior or failure to mature, the sentence was still disproportionate because that judgment was made at the outset.”). Thus, in establishing a constitutionally permissible sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders, the appropriate remedy is to ensure that juvenile offenders are provided with reassessment and a meaningful opportunity for release upon reaching an age of maturity, and for continued opportunities for release after that point to account for personal growth, maturation and rehabilitation that some juvenile offenders may achieve over a longer time period.”