Mixed Results for Arguments in State Courts to Extend Juvenile Protections Past the Age of 18

Supreme Court of Washington (Wikipedia.org)

In May 2021, the Supreme Court of Washington reversed the automatic LWOP sentences of two inmates, aged 19 and 20 at the time of their offenses, while in June 2021, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania denied postconviction relief to a similarly situated young adult.

In Washington, Kurtis Monschke and Dwayne Bartholomew filed personal restraint petitions challenging their mandatory, nondiscretionary life sentences without parole. Monschke was 19 years old when he was convicted in 2003, and Bartholomew was 20 at the time of his offense in 1981. The petitions contended that LWOP constituted cruel and unusual punishment considering their youth at the time of their crimes, thereby violating the Eighth Amendment.

Monschke and Bartholomew argued that recent developments in neuroscience have demonstrated that a “bright line” application of developmental neuroscience to offenders below age 18 is arbitrary, and that defendants up to 21 years old should receive the same protections that courts have recognized for juveniles.

The Washington Supreme Court recognized that “modern social science, our precedent, and a long history of arbitrary line drawing have all shown that no clear line exists between childhood and adulthood” and determined that the constitutional guarantee to an individualized sentence under Miller should apply to individuals at least as old as Monschke and Bartholomew. The Court’s decision was in accordance with their showing that young adults “share the same developing brains and impulsive behavioral attributes as those under 18.”

Accordingly, the Court granted Monschke and Bartholomew resentencing hearings considering the mitigating qualities of youth.

In Pennsylvania, by contrast, Orlando Hamilton’s argument did not lead to the same result. Hamilton was just 18 years and 4 months old when he committed first degree murder. Hamilton argued on appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania that Miller should apply to individuals ages 18 to 21 and that LWOP is unconstitutional for those under 21 with an intellectual disability.

However, the Superior Court ruled that Hamilton did not carry his burden of pleading and proving his right to relief by a preponderance of the evidence. The Court’s denial to extend juvenile protections agreed with a dissenting opinion filed in Monschke and Bartholomew’s case. The dissent argued that the ruling was weakly supported by few scientific studies and “circumvents the reality that no legislatures or courts in the other 49 states have ever recognized such a protection.”

Although many courts have accepted neuroscientific arguments to extend protections past the age of 18, in light of these two rulings, the routes for postconviction relief for young adults sentenced to LWOP remain limited.

Citations: Matter of Monschke, 197 Wash.2d 305 (2021); Commonwealth v. Hamilton, 2021 WL 2285507.

Keywords: Washington, Pennsylvania, Eighth Amendment, young adult adolescent brain, Miller v. Alabama, LWOP, young adult

This post is the 106th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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