Law event focuses on Miller v. Alabama case
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Law experts from across the nation deliberated the constitutionality of mandatory life sentences for juveniles at the Missouri Law Review Symposium in Hulston Hall on Friday.
The symposium titled, "Bombshell or Baby Step? The Ramifications of Miller v. Alabama for Sentencing Law and Juvenile Crime Policy" focused on practical administrative policy regarding the U.S. Supreme Court case.
In the 2012 case, the court ruled that mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In the U.S., nearly 2,570 juveniles are sentenced to life without parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The event, organized by the Missouri Law Review, hosted various panel discussions and featured 12 speakers.
"We got perspectives from a lot of experts in the field from all over the country," second-year law student Erin Leach said. "It's a very interesting time to hear people's opinions and different opinions on the topic. I hope to broaden my horizons about criminal law because I don't know much about it."
The first panel focused on the constitutional questions surrounding Miller v. Alabama. Law professor Frank Bowman began the discussion by explaining that in the case, the justices took on the role of defining crime, a job which legislatures usually do.
"As a general matter of separation of powers, judges should not define crime," Bowman said in his speech. "In these cases, the court is engaging in judicial redefinition."
The symposium not only benefits students academically but can enrich the knowledge of practicing lawyers as well, said Peter Bay, second-year law student and associate member of the Missouri Law Review.
"This is a decision that will impact those who practice criminal law to defend children," Bay said. "The students get a flavor of the Supreme Court and those constitutional issues. It's interesting academically, but there is also a lot of practical impact for lawyers that are working now. It dealt a lot with the future with what's going to happen now after the case."
Although the Supreme Court ruled on the case last year, the impact of Miller v. Alabama is still yet to be seen, Bay said.
"It's going to impact the way that the states, including Missouri, handle juvenile sentencing," Bay said. "So, it'll be an issue we see here at the state level soon."
Panelists also discussed whether the Miller case could lead to elimination of mandatory sentencing for adults. Featured keynote speaker and retired judge Nancy Gertner said in her speech that science shows how the human brain is not fully developed before adulthood. Mary Price, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, argued that mandatory sentencing is unfair and ineffective.
In addition to hearing expert opinions on the case, the event allowed students to engage with panelists, Leach said.
"I really like the amount of student participation and the conversation that can happen afterwards about what we've learned," Leach said. "There were a lot of panels and question and answer sessions and a lot of discussion happens after that."