When state law clashes with federal rulings

Four years after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile offenders, a Missouri senator is working to bring Missouri into compliance before the session ends Friday.

The bill is commonly known as the “Miller fix” — named for a 2012 U.S. high court ruling in Miller v. Alabama — and the Senate proponent is Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Missouri law now provides that juveniles under age 17 convicted of first-degree murder face two punishment options — the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled execution is unconstitutional for juvenile murderers.

Seven years later, in the Miller case, the court ruled life without parole similarly is unconstitutional as a lone punishment for juveniles.

The ruling permits a sentence of life without parole for juvenile killers if another sentencing option is available.

Missouri’s law, however, has not been changed to provide another or other options.

“This is year four of trying to do a Miller fix,” Dixon said last week, noting the Senate has approved a bill that remains in a House committee as the session’s 6 p.m. Friday deadline nears.

“To me,” he added, “there are consequences and that is we continue to let victims, their families and the accused just hang in limbo.”

Dixon has asked members of the Missouri Bar to contact lawmakers and urge them to approve the legislation.

This legislation is not about whether Missouri should comply; the U.S. Supreme Court rulings require the state to offer punishments that are constitutionally permissible.

Missouri lawmakers are obligated to approve a Miller fix. And the clock is ticking.

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