by Michael Fortino, Ph.D.
In a long-awaited state enactment, Ohio Governor, Mike Dewine, signed into law, SB 256 which, among other provisions, bans sentences for life without parole (“LWOP”) and retroactively alters parole eligibility for minors sentenced to exceedingly long terms of imprisonment.
“The signing of SB 256 means everything to us,” said Stefanie Tengler, who’s partner, Joshua Wade, was sentenced to life as a minor for murder. Wade will now be eligible for parole about 30 years earlier than he had previously anticipated.
The reforms, which mirror the moves by other states to end LWOP for persons convicted as minors, are still only a modest step in the long process of decarcerating America and ending racial and demographic disparities in criminal justice.
People who are charged with crimes before age 18 will no longer receive sentences of LWOP. If the crime does not involve a homicide, parole eligibility begins no later than after 18 years of incarceration. If a homicide was involved, eligibility begins after 25 to 30 years after incarceration, depending on the severity of the offense.
Ohio is the 24th state, plus the District of Columbia, that has modified the imposition of lengthy sentences for juveniles. Virginia, which also recently reformed its juvenile LWOP sentences, set parole eligibility at no more than 20 years of incarceration, while more moderate states such as Oregon, set the limit at 15 years.
Reform efforts have been gaining momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), ruled that LWOP for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Graham and its progeny acknowledge issues surrounding cognitive development of minors who commit crimes before age 18.
“SB 256 acknowledges that science has been at odds with how judges have sentenced youth in the past,” said Claire Chevrier, policy counsel at ACLU of Ohio. “Science tells us that young people are not static.... It doesn’t make sense to punish forever something that a youth committed when they didn’t have all the skills necessary to behave like an adult.”
Though 50 to 60 people currently in prisons within Ohio will become immediately eligible for parole, with many more being eligible soon thereafter, the enactment is no guarantee that these prisoners will be released. The Ohio Parole Board has come under fire for its lack of transparency and its harsh rulings that excessively punish even minor prison rule violations.
Reformers are also targeting those laws that lead to such long sentences in the first place. It is shockingly easy to get juveniles transferred to adult court where they face significantly harsher sentences.
According to reporting by The Appeal from 2019, Prosecuting Attorney Michael O’Malley, who oversees Cuyahoga County, covering much of metropolitan Cleveland, aggressively transferred minors to adult court. “Ninety-four percent of [minors] transferred to adult court in 2018 were Black,” according to The Appeal.
Reforming juvenile LWOP in Ohio is a necessary step that follows a wave of reforms in other states. But the changes are extremely modest, and the state must take bolder steps if it wishes to address issues surrounding racial disparity, long-term incarceration, and the mental anguish and disenfranchisement of those left to languish for years without hope .
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