In a unanimous decision, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the state’s sentencing law for juveniles who had previously been convicted of aggravated murder did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling is a win for the state, but a blow for advocates of youth convicted of murder before January 2020. Oregon lawmakers made sweeping changes for juveniles convicted of serious and violent crimes moving forward from that date, but not for those who were already serving prison sentences. The court’s ruling applies to roughly two dozen defendants in Oregon’s prisons.

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The Supreme Court decision overturned a 2019 opinion from the Oregon Court of Appeals, which found state laws had violated the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because they didn’t consider whether youth defendants are developmentally different than adults convicted of the same crime.

The Oregon Supreme Court shown in a supplied photo.

The Oregon Supreme Court shown in this supplied photo from 2021: Seated from left to right: Justice Thomas A. Balmer, Chief Justice Martha L. Walters, Justice Lynn Nakamoto, and Justice Meagan A. Flynn. Standing from left to right: Justice Rebecca A. Duncan, Justice Adrienne Nelson and Justice Christopher L. Garrett.

Oregon Judicial Branch

The case before the court on Thursday stemmed from the March 2001 murder of Barbara Thomas. She was killed near Redmond by her teenage son and four of his friends, including teenager Justin Link.

The teens became known as the “Redmond Five.” After killing Thomas, the teens stole her car and drove for Canada. They were arrested when they tried to cross the border.

Link was found guilty of aggravated murder and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison, with the possibility of applying for parole after that.

Marc Brown, the chief public defender who brought the case on Link’s behalf, had argued Oregon’s sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of aggravated murder before 2020 amounted to mandatory life imprisonment.

The Oregon Supreme Court summarized that argument in its ruling:

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“In short, defendant reasons, at the time of sentencing, a sentence of ‘life imprisonment’ ... carries no inherent opportunity for parole and is thus a life-without-parole sentence,” the justices wrote.

But they ultimately did not side with Brown’s reasoning.

“We reject that argument,” the justices stated. “The entitlement to a murder-review hearing is part of that sentence; thus, the opportunity to obtain entitlement to parole at that hearing is necessarily part of the sentence as well.”

The Oregon District Attorneys Association did not have a comment on the ruling. The Oregon Department of Justice, which won the case, also did not immediately return a request for comment.

The heart of the matter hinged on whether Oregon’s sentencing before 2020 was constitutional, after several key U.S. Supreme Court rulings found, in essence, the juvenile brain is different than the adults, and thus youths must be treated differently in the criminal justice system.

Aliza Kaplan, a law professor at Lewis and Clark in Portland, said Oregon’s Supreme Court ruling ignored the people at the center of the case.

“They don’t take into account the qualities of youth,” she said. “Instead, they focused on legal process and that is incredibly disappointing.”

The ACLU and the ACLU of Oregon filed briefs with the state’s supreme court arguing Link’s sentence was unconstitutional. ACLU of Oregon interim legal director Kelly Simon said she too was disappointed in the ruling.

“Oregon youth should not be denied the opportunity to repair harm and be rehabilitated,” Simon said in a statement. “When young people take responsibility for their actions, our community should support their positive reintegration into society, rather than discard them with draconian and harsh prison sentences.”

In 2019, over the objections of most prosecutors, Oregon lawmakers passed SB 1008, which changed the way juveniles convicted of aggravated murder get sentenced. Life without parole became off the table. Defendants now get a parole hearing after 15 years, and a second-look hearing seven-and-a-half years after their conviction.

“Mr. Link’s case shows the problem with the Legislature’s decision to not make the juvenile justice reforms of 2019 retroactive,” Brown said. “We have inmates who were very young when they committed their offenses serving exceptionally long prison sentences because they committed their offenses during the ‘do the crime do the time’ period. Even though our understanding of juvenile brain development has evolved, we are not applying that science to those already serving their sentence.”

With Thursday’s ruling, Link will still be required to serve 30 years in prison before the parole board can consider his parole eligibility.

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