West Virginia Abolishes Death in Prison Sentences for Children

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Last week, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law a bill that abolishes life imprisonment without parole sentences for all children under age 18 at the time of the offense.

The bill, HB 4210, provides that every person convicted and sentenced for a crime that occurred before they were 18 years old is eligible for parole after serving 15 years. Parole authorities will consider factors specified in the new law - such as the child's age, role in the crime, intellectual capacity, and history of trauma - in reviewing juvenile offenders annually to determine whether they should be released on parole. The bill passed with broad bipartisan support.

West Virginia is the latest of several states that have eliminated death-in-prison sentences for children in recent years, including Delaware, Wyoming, and Texas.

Also last week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law SB 5064, which abolishes life imprisonment without parole sentences for children who were younger than 16 at the time of the crime. In accordance with Miller v. Alabama, the new law eliminates mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children and provides an alternative sentence of at least 25 years for murder. Under the new law, most juvenile offenders may petition for early release after serving 20 years.

Washington established a task force to study and make recommendations about a range of juvenile sentencing reforms, including how children are transferred to adult court and the conditions of confinement for children. EJI believes that the adult prosecution of any child under age 14 for any crime should be banned and is challenging the confinement of children with adults in jails and prisons, where they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and face increased risk of suicide.