SC Supreme Court Finds that Juvenile Waivers Are Constitutional

In Jones v. State, decided this week, the SC Supreme Court held that “automatic juvenile waivers” under SC Code § 63-19-20’s are constitutional and comply with US Supreme Court precedent regarding juvenile sentencing.

The opinion is significant for two reasons:

  1. The SC Supreme Court reaffirms that SC’s post-conviction relief (PCR) statute authorizes PCR claims based on the constitutionality of an inmate’s conviction or sentence and does not limit PCR claims to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, and
  2. The SC Supreme Court forecloses any claims regarding juvenile sentencing that would exceed the “confines of the holdings of the [US] Supreme Court.”

Automatic Juvenile Waivers Approved by SC Supreme Court

First, the SC Supreme Court disagreed with the State and reversed the lower court, finding that constitutional claims are not limited to direct appeal or federal habeas, and, as the SC Supreme Court has previously held, SC Code § 17-27-20 authorizes many different grounds for PCR including when “the conviction or the sentence was in violation of the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution or laws of this State….”

“A violation found to be unconstitutional after the time for appeal lapses is not a direct appeal issue and is not barred from PCR consideration.” Gibson v. State, 329 S.C. 37, 41, 495 S.E.2d 426, 428 (1998).

Juvenile Waivers in South Carolina

The current version of SC Code § 17-27-20 provides for “automatic juvenile waivers,” or a requirement that a person be charged in “adult court” when they are “seventeen years of age or older [and] charged with a Class A, B, C, or D felony as defined in Section 16-1-20 or a felony which provides for a maximum term of imprisonment of fifteen years or more.”

At the time of Jones’ conviction, § 17-27-20 provided for automatic waiver when a defendant was 16 years of age or older when they were “charged with a Class A, B, C, or D felony as defined in Section 16-1-20 or a felony which provides for a maximum term of imprisonment of fifteen years or more.”

Jones was charged with burglary first-degree (which carries up to life in prison) and armed robbery (which carries up to 30 years in prison), which he allegedly committed at the ages of 16 (burglary first-degree) and 17 (armed robbery).

SC’s Juvenile Waivers Comply with US Supreme Court Precedent

Juveniles are entitled to different treatment in sentencing under the Eighth Amendment, but the SC Supreme Court rejected Jones’ argument that § 17-27-20’s automatic waiver provisions restrict the court’s ability to consider the mitigating factors of Miller v. Alabama (federal) and Aiken v. Byars (SC).

The Court was clear that they will not exceed the “confines of the holdings of the [US] Supreme Court” or “extend the rationale underlying the holdings.” The cases the Court cites include:

  • Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988) (holding the execution of an offender under the age of sixteen at the time of the crime violates the United States Constitution)
  • Roper, 543 U.S. at 551 (ruling the imposition of the death penalty for offenders under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments),
  • Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (holding the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide),
  • Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for individuals under the age of eighteen violates the Eighth Amendment and stating the judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty), and
  • Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021) (holding, under Miller, a sentencing court need not make a finding of permanent incorrigibility before imposing a life-without-parole sentence).

The Court then goes on to describe the SC Supreme Court cases that have interpreted and applied the US Supreme Court precedents listed above.

Aiken v. Byars Mitigating Factors

The Court cites several SC cases that interpret the federal decisions regarding juvenile sentencing, including:

  • Aiken v. Byars, 410 S.C. 534, 765 S.E.2d 572 (2014) (holding inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles before Miller were entitled to resentencing because their sentences violated the Eighth Amendment),
  • State v. Slocumb, 426 S.C. 297, 827 S.E.2d 148 (2019) (declining to extend Graham‘s holding to de facto life-without-parole sentences), and
  • State v. Smith, 428 S.C. 417, 836 S.E.2d 348 (2019) (holding mandatory minimum sentence on those convicted of murder, whether a juvenile or adult, does not violate the Eighth Amendment as interpreted by Miller).

Jones was not sentenced to life without parole (or the death penalty). He was sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence for each offense, and the Court points out that this is constitutional, as the Court has already held in State v. Smith.

The Court declines to extend the holdings or rationale behind the cases listed above, but the Court does direct circuit courts to consider the mitigating factors listed in Aiken v. Byar before sentencing a juvenile:

In Aiken, we enumerated five factors that a court must consider when life without parole is a possible sentence for a juvenile:

(1) the chronological age of the offender and the hallmark features of youth, including “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate the risks and consequence”; (2) the “family and home environment” that surrounded the offender; (3) the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of the offender’s participation in the conduct and how familial and peer pressures may have affected him; (4) the “incompetencies associated with youth—for example, [the offender’s] inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or [the offender’s] incapacity to assist his own attorneys”; and (5) the “possibility of rehabilitation.”

The family court doesn’t need to consider the mitigating factors before the case is waived to the circuit court, however; it is enough that the circuit court considers them, which was done in this case.

Juvenile Criminal Defense Lawyers in Charleston, SC

If your child has been charged with a crime in the Charleston area, they will need an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands how the juvenile criminal system works and who can protect their rights at every step of the proceedings.

Call Charleston, SC juvenile defense lawyer Grant B. Smaldone now at (843) 808-2100 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.