Tennessee Supreme Court strikes down law mandating life sentences for juvenile homicide offenders

Tennessee’s Supreme Court ruled against a state law mandating life sentences for juvenile homicide offenders on Friday, stating it was “cruel and unusual punishment,” and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In the 21-page opinion, the justices noted Tennessee was the only state in the country requiring the offenders to serve more than 50 years in prison before being considered for parole. Juvenile homicide offenders are eligible for release before serving 35 years in most other U.S. states.

Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee said Tennessee is “out of step” with the rest of the country when it comes to the severity of sentences handed to the offenders in question.

“Automatically imposing a fifty-one-year-minimum life sentence on a juvenile offender without regard to the juvenile’s age and attendant circumstances can, for some juveniles, offend contemporary standards of decency,” Lee wrote in the 3-2 majority opinion, according to the Associated Press.

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The Tennessee Supreme Court building is shown Nov. 10, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Jeffrey Bivins and Roger Page argued state courts should not make “broad moral and social policy judgments” and sentencing decisions should be left to the legislative branch.

According to the AP, Tennessee has been criticized for years for its “unusually harsh prison terms for juveniles.” More than 100 people have been sentenced to serve 60 years in jail after convictions when they were children.

National attention was placed on Tennessee in 2006 when Cyntoia Brown-Long, who was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim at the time, was convicted of murdering a 42-year-old real estate agent in Nashville.

In 2019, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam granted Brown-Long clemency, stating that having to wait 51 years in prison for a parole hearing was “too harsh.”

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Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the grand opening celebration of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on April 15, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.
(Jason Davis/Getty Images)

After Friday’s ruling, judges will now be able to adjust sentences for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. The court also encouraged state lawmakers to consider legislation that would allow for more “discretionary, individualized sentencing,” the AP reported.

Republicans currently control both chambers in the state legislature and have been pushing for stricter sentencing requirements.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said his office is reviewing the opinion.

A man in prison puts his hands around the steel bars of a jail cell.
(iStock)

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The court’s decision comes from a 2015 case where Tyshon Booker, 16, was convicted as an adult for the first-degree murder of G’Metrik Caldwell.

Under the new ruling, Booker’s 60-year sentence will now be eligible for parole after 25 to 36 years served. His age and other circumstances will also be allowed to be considered in any future decisions made.

The new ruling does not mean any sentences will be overturned.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.