Judicial Responses to Age and Other Mitigating Evidence: An Exploratory Case Study of Juvenile Life Sentences in Pre-Miller Cases

Ashford, José B.,Puzauskas, Katherine,Dormady, Robert | April 3, 2023

This study describes how judges in Maricopa County, Arizona responded to age and other mitigation evidence in imposing “life” versus “natural life” sentences for juvenile offenders convicted of homicide in pre-Miller cases. Maricopa County was selected for this case study because of its history of adhering to “restrictive interpretations” of various kinds of mitigation evidence and because of the characteristics of this county’s local court community. The study employed a mixed-methods design consisting of a content analysis of relevant case documents and a quantitative analysis of the findings from the qualitative analyses of legal case documents. It examined 82% of the juveniles given natural life sentences and 72% of the juveniles given a sentence of life (25-to-life) in Maricopa County. The findings of this study indicated that judges referenced age as a statutory mitigating factor in 17% of both “life” and “natural life” cases, and age as a reason for the sentences imposed in 46% of both “life” and “natural life” cases. However, the age-relevant and other mitigating reasons referenced by judges lacked statistically significant associations with the sentences that the judges imposed. The only judicial reason with a statistically significant association with the imposed sentences was “emotional impact of the crime on the victim’s family.” The implications of this and other findings for “full responsibility” and “mitigation” approaches for blaming juvenile lifers were discussed, as well as the need for future research on post-Miller sentencing and resentencing processes.