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West Virginia Supreme Court Announces Parole Eligibility Statute for Prisoners Who Committed Crimes as Minors is Retroactive

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of West Virginia announced that the provision of the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act of 2014 that applies to parole eligibility for persons who committed crimes when they were less than 18 years of age is to be applied retroactively.

Sixteen-year-old Christopher J. sexually abused two boys he was babysitting in 2007. The boys, ages 3 and 4, did not report the abuse until 2012. Christopher was tried as an adult. He was convicted and given a sentence of 35 to 75 years in prison. Christopher subsequently filed a habeas petition alleging, inter alia, that W. Va. Code § 61-11-23(b) of the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act of 2014 applied retroactively. The provision set parole eligibility at no more than 15 years for persons who committed their crimes before reaching age 18. The circuit court rejected Christopher’s argument, and he appealed to the Supreme Court of West Virginia.

The Court first provided the background to what prompted the Legislature to enact the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act. It began with the Supreme Court of the United States’ (“SCOTUS”) decision prohibiting the imposition of a death sentence on defendants who committed their crimes before they were 18 years of age. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005). In Roper, SCOTUS observed that juveniles’ lack of maturity caused them to be more reckless than adults; juveniles are more susceptible to negative outside influences and peer pressure than adults are; and a juvenile’s character is not as well formed as an adult’s, which means a juvenile is more amenable to rehabilitation. Because of these traits, it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to sentence to death a person who committed his or her crime while a juvenile. In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), SCOTUS applied the reasoning of Roper to defendants who received sentences of life without parole for non-homicide offenses committed when they were juveniles. And in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), SCOTUS applied the same reasoning to defendants who committed homicide while a juvenile and had received life without parole. The West Virginia Supreme Court took note of the fact that Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), held that Miller was to be applied retroactively. In response to these decisions from SCOTUS, the Legislature passed the Juvenile Sentencing Reform Act. 

The Court observed that it is presumed a statute operates only prospectively, not retrospectively, unless it appears by clear, strong, and imperative words that the Legislature intended to give the statute retroactive force and effect. Taylor v. State Comp. Com’r, 86 S.E.2d 114 (W. Va. 1955). The courts are to give meaning and congruency to the various provisions of a statute in light of the meaning of the statute as a whole. State ex rel. Holbert v. Robinson, 59 S.E.2d 884 (W. Va. 1950). When the Legislature “includes particular language in one section of a statute but omits it in another section of the same Act, it is generally presumed that [the Legislature] acts intentionally and purposely in the disparate inclusion or exclusion.” Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16 (1983). The West Virginia Supreme Court “refuses to afford a statute an illogical construction.” Foster Found v. Gainer, 717 S.E.2d 883 (W. Va. 2011).

The Court explained that W. Va. Code § 61-11-23(b) is one provision of four provisions of the statute and must be interpreted in light of the whole statute. In the fourth provision of the statute at W. Va. Code § 61-11-23(d)(2), it reads, “The provisions of this subsection are applicable to sentencing proceedings for convictions rendered after the effective date of this section....” Since these words requiring prospective application are found only in this subsection, it means the Legislature intentionally and purposefully meant for only this subsection to be applied prospectively but excluded only prospective application to the other three subsections. Any other interpretation would be illogical and nonsensically conclude that the Legislature expressly excluded retroactive application of one provision while implicitly excluding retroactive application of the other three provisions of the same statute. Thus, the Court concluded that W. Va. Code § 61-11-23(b) is to be applied retroactively. Accordingly, the Court reversed the part of the circuit court’s judgment that held W. Va. Code § 61-11-23(b) does not apply retroactively. See: Christopher J. v. Ames, 2019 W. Va. LEXIS 311 (2019).

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