ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Attorneys in Oregon say some of the state's juvenile sentencing laws violate the U.S. Constitution. That's because of laws that require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to what amounts to mandatory life imprisonment. A case going before the state's court of appeals on Friday could push lawmakers to take action. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On March 26, 2001, Barbara Thomas was killed by her teenage son and four of his friends near Redmond, Ore. Police say she was struck in the head with a glass bottle repeatedly and then shot. The teens became known as the Redmond 5. After killing Thomas, the teens stole her Honda coupe and drove for Canada. They were arrested when they tried to cross the border.
MARC BROWN: Justin Link was 17 years old when he and four friends committed aggravated murder.
WILSON: Marc Brown is Link's attorney.
BROWN: Justin did not actually pull the trigger.
WILSON: Still, a judge found Link guilty of murder. Link is appealing his sentence before the Oregon Court of Appeals - not the facts surrounding the case, rather how Oregon sentences juveniles.
BROWN: We're saying this is unconstitutional as applied to all juveniles.
WILSON: And here's why. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Miller versus Alabama. The court says it was a violation of the Constitution to sentence a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole if that's the only sentence a judge or a jury can impose. In other words, there needs to be options. On paper, Oregon has two options for sentencing juveniles convicted of aggravated murder - life without the possibility of parole or a minimum of 30 years in prison, after which your sentence may be converted to one with a possibility of parole. That's the sentence that Link is serving.
But here's the thing. That possibility of parole isn't a given. First he has to prove he'll be rehabilitated. Then the sentence is converted. And only then can he apply for parole. Attorney Marc Brown argues those two sentences are effectively the same. He says that parole after 30 years is speculative.
BROWN: At the time of sentencing, they are both life without the possibility of parole.
WILSON: Former Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan disagrees. His office prosecuted Link.
MIKE DUGAN: I think it's an opportunity for the offender to prove rehabilitation. So there's a choice there. And it's going to be part of the choice of the offender.
WILSON: According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, 23 juveniles are currently serving life sentences for aggravated murder. The case playing out in Oregon falls in line with efforts across the country to make sure juvenile sentencing laws are consistent with the Supreme Court's interpretation. Heather Renwick is the legal director at the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth. She says the Supreme Court has found when it comes to sentencing, juveniles have different culpability because their brains are not fully developed. Twenty states across the country now ban life without the possibility for parole for juveniles.
HEATHER RENWICK: Oregon is an outlier or sort of falling behind the national movement because it hasn't yet taken legislative action.
WILSON: A bipartisan group of state lawmakers in Oregon is looking to change that. Jennifer Williamson is the Democratic majority leader in the Oregon House.
JENNIFER WILLIAMSON: I would argue that our system currently is unconstitutional under Miller. We have to change that in order to be compliant and because I think it's the right thing to do.
WILSON: For Dugan, the former Deschutes County DA, it's critical crime victims are part of that conversation.
DUGAN: The system needs to understand the impact that the crime has on victims. It's important that they have their voice be heard.
WILSON: Legislators are taking a broad look at mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles that have been in place for more than 20 years. Critics say the laws are costly and overly harsh, but the state's District Attorneys Association defends them, saying Oregon's juvenile crime rate is well below the national average. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.