Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Juvenile justice and redemption

It’s the holiday season, and it seems like everywhere we turn, we encounter messages of redemption. From music to movies, from commercials to the great classics, we hear that the holiday spirit means forgiving ourselves and others, repaying debts, making things right, and doing the hard work required every day to honor our word and strive for integrity.

In the juvenile justice system, redemption can mean all of these things. But it usually means something else. It is one factor in an overall balancing of accountability, rehabilitation, and protection of public safety. Juvenile offenders sometimes commit horrendous crimes. Their impact on victims and their families is unspeakable. They hit our wall, personally and as a society. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently directed us to move our wall.

The concept of redemption looms large in the U.S. Supreme Court’s juvenile justice jurisprudence. The underlying premise of its decisions is that children are constitutionally different from adults in their diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform. The Court has forbidden the death penalty for juvenile homicide offenders. In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Court held that the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of release for juvenile homicide offenders. This year, the Court issued its much anticipated decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, ruling that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders is retroactive in cases on state collateral (post-conviction) review.

Under both Montgomery and Miller, sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects “irreparable corruption.” Nevertheless, the Court did not ban life sentences without the possibility of release for juvenile homicide offenders. Instead, the Court required that a sentence follow a certain process and consider an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics before imposing a particular penalty.

The Minnesota Heinous Crimes Act (Minn. Stat. §609.106) provides that those who commit certain crimes, including first-degree premeditated murder, shall be sentenced to life without the possibility of release. Under Miller, this statute is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles. Since 2012, efforts to revise this statute and bring it into conformity with Miller have been unsuccessful. Without legislative action, the courts have been working to fashion sentencing procedures that comply with Miller. The Legislature should revise this statute so we don’t have an unconstitutional law on the books. We need sentencing standards for pending and future cases. Addressing sentencing policy on a case-by-case basis through the judicial process is challenging.

The U.S. Supreme Court has changed the landscape.In Minnesota, there are eight juvenile offenders seeing post-conviction relief and resentencing. By contrast, other states have hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of juvenile offenders seeking post-conviction relief. Minnesota has the opportunity to address the issue of sentencing standards in a different context than elsewhere. Perhaps we can lead the nation in recommending new or revised sentencing standards, as we did decades ago, when Minnesota was the first in the country to establish sentencing guidelines.

The MSBA has created a Commission on Juvenile Sentencing for Heinous Crimes. It will be chaired by the Hon. Kathleen Gearin and John Kingrey. Its purpose is to bring together major stakeholders and some of the best talent in our state to make recommendations for bringing our sentencing requirements into compliance with Miller and Montgomery. It is charged with making recommendations regarding the factors that should be considered for purposes of sentencing juveniles who commit crimes under the Heinous Crimes Act, including pre-sentence investigations.

The U. S. Supreme Court has changed the landscape. As the Legislature and courts continue to address the challenges of compliance with Miller and Montgomery, the commission’s work will add value to that discourse. In the future, the commission’s work can serve as a framework for addressing emerging juvenile justice issues. The MSBA is grateful for the opportunity to play a leadership role on this important issue. I thank the members of the commission for all the work they will do on behalf of the public and the state bar.


Commission on Juvenile Sentencing for Heinous Crimes


Hon. Kathleen Gearin, Ramsey County District Court (ret.); and

John Kingrey, Minnesota Court Attorneys Association


Hon. Paul Anderson, Minnesota Supreme Court (ret.)

Tom Arneson, Hennepin County Attorney’s Office 

James Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney’s Office

Jean Burdorf, Hennepin County Attorney’s Office

Hon. Bradford Delapena, Minnesota Tax Court

Hon. Christopher Dietzen, Minnesota Supreme Court (ret.) ex officio

Sen. Dan Hall (R), Minnesota Senate

Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL), Minnesota Senate

Rep. John Lesch (DFL), Minnesota House of Representatives

Shelley McBride, independent consultant and LMFT; DFO Community Corrections (ret.).

Kelly Mitchell, Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, University of Minnesota

Perry Moriarty, University of Minnesota

Rep. Marion O’Neill (R), Minnesota House of Representatives

Dr. Dawn Peuschold, Hennepin County Psychological Services

Francis Shen, University of Minnesota Law School

John Turnipseed, Urban Ventures

William Ward, State of Minnesota Board of Public Defense

Robin Wolpert, Minnesota State Bar Association


Brittany Lawoon, Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, and

Alexis Watts, Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, University of Minnesota

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