NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that Tennessee’s mandatory sentence of life in prison when placed on a juvenile homicide offender is unconstitutional.
The ruling stems from a court case out of Knox County. Tyshon Booker was convicted of first degree murder and especially aggravated robbery by a Knox County jury and sentenced to a mandatory life sentence of 60 years, with a requirement he serve at least 51 years of the sentence.
Booker was 16 years old when the crimes were committed, according to the Court opinion, and the judge in the case could not consider his age or any other factors in determining his sentence.
The ruling did not change Booker’s sentence but granted him an individualized parole hearing after he serves between 25 and 36 years of his sentence so that his age and other factors can be considered.
Booker was also sentenced to serve 20 years in prison for the robbery conviction, to run together with his life sentence.
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In its decision, the Court explained the United States Supreme Court ruled that under the Eighth Amendment, a judge must have discretion to impose a lesser sentence on a juvenile homicide offender based on their age and other factors.
In this case, Booker’s trial judge reportedly had no sentencing discretion, and the Court noted that the state’s automatic life sentence of 51 to 60 years for a juvenile homicide offender is an “outlier in the nation,” as no other state imposes a mandatory sentence of over 50 years for a single juvenile offense.
Furthermore, in nearly half of the states, juvenile homicide offenders are eligible for release or are ordered to serve 25 years or less. Nearly three-quarters of the states grant the juvenile homicide offender release eligibility in less than 35 years.
Although the Court found the state’s mandatory life sentence unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, the Court did not resentence or change Booker’s sentence, but rather granted Booker an individualized parole hearing where his age and other factors would be considered.
The timing of the parole hearing is based on the release eligibility in the previous version of the statute that was in effect before July 1, 1995. That statute provides for a sentence of 60 years with release eligibility of 60%, but not less than 25 years of service, keeping Booker’s sentence to 60 years in prison but after serving 25 and 36 years, his age and other factors will be considered at an individualized parole hearing.
The Court said the ruling “promotes the state’s interest in finality and efficient use of resources, protects juveniles’ Eighth Amendment rights, and is based on sentencing policy enacted by the General Assembly.”