House OKs juvenile murder sentencing change; Senate next

Mandatory life terms disallowed

rage@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2012 

— Responding to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, state lawmakers took the first step Monday toward eliminating automatic life sentences without parole for minors convicted of murder.

With a 111-6 vote, the House approved Senate bill 635 to give judges discretion when sentencing juvenile offenders and allow parole for others. The Senate also needs to sign off on the legislation before it goes to the governor.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 that states like North Carolina could not impose mandatory life sentences for juveniles, saying such a sentence violated the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

Under the legislation, a judge would need to hold a sentencing hearing to consider mitigating factors before sentencing a juvenile convicted of premeditated murder to life in prison without parole.

Juveniles convicted of felony murder would become eligible for parole after 25 years.

“This still leaves the discretion with the judge,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens, the Mt. Airy Republican guiding the bill. “The judge could still do life in prison without parole; he can do life in prison with parole.”

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican, estimated that the court’s ruling affects roughly 100 pending cases and an equal number currently in prison. He allowed it was “slightly more lenient” than current law but is required by the high court.

The bill also asks the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission to study the new procedures and conduct a study.

Rep. Phil Haire, a Sylva Democrat, voted against the bill because he opposed allowing any juvenile to serve a life term.

“Would you want to send a 16-year-old to prison without parole?” he asked. “That’s basically what this bill would allow to happen.”

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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