In Virginia, Juveniles Sentenced to Life Without Parole Wait in Limbo

Oct 21, 2016

Credit Jail / Flickr

Jason Clem is 12 years into a life sentence for a murder he committed when he was 16.

A nonprofit estimates there are 60 people like Clem in Virginia, serving a life sentence without hope of parole, for a crime they committed when they are under 18. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that’s unconstitutional.

But, so far, that's had little effect for those in Virginia.

Jason Clem and his lawyers have appealed his sentence in federal court, arguing a Virginia law that mandates judges dole out a life sentence in murder convictions, even if the defendant is under 18, is unconstitutional.

But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals opted not to decide yet on the matter.

“They essentially are punting the case back to the lower court,” says Julie McConnell, who runs the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond.

Related: Federal Court Considers Virginia's Sentencing of Teenage Murderers 

McConnell says the feds are waiting to see what happens in a similar case, in a state court.

“In that case, the Virginia Supreme Court originally said our capital murder statute is not unconstitutional because the sentencing judge would have the option of suspending some of the time that would have been given under a sentence,” says McConnell.

Even still, says McConnell, that’s never actually happened in Virginia.

When a ruling does come -- it won’t have an immediate effect on Clem and others like him. That’s because each case has to litigated individually.