Fletcher v. State of Alaska




Alaska Court of Appeals

Citation and Year

532 P.3d 286 (2023)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

ALASKA CONST. art. I, § 12 (“nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. Criminal administration shall be based upon the following: the need for protecting the public, community condemnation of the offender, the rights of victims of crimes, restitution from the offender, and the principle of reformation.”)

Nature of Case

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama barred mandatory life without parole sentences for youth under 18, explaining that the attributes of youth “diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders.” The Court said that youth LWOP should be “rare” and required sentencing courts to consider the mitigating characteristics of youth. Here, the Alaska Court of Appeals considered whether the protections of Miller extend to youth who receive discretionary, term-of-years sentences that are so long they amount to de facto life in prison (in this case, a 14-year-old girl sentenced to serve 135 years).


Under the state constitution’s antipunishment clause, the protections set forth in Miller v. Alabama apply to both discretionary and de facto life without parole prison terms for youth under age 18. Sentencing courts must therefore “affirmatively consider” youth as a mitigating factor and justify any life sentence with “an on-the-record sentencing explanation” as to why “the juvenile offender is one of the ‘rare’ juvenile offenders ‘whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’” In addition, “a sentence that allows an opportunity for release only after 45 years is a de facto life without parole sentence” that requires these protections.


The court’s state constitutional analysis rejects the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8th Amendment ruling in Jones v. Mississippi, which eliminated the need for explicit findings before sentencing youth to die in prison. The court noted that “Alaska has a robust tradition of independent state constitutional analysis,” and often applies “the Alaska Constitution as providing more protection than its federal counterpart.” The state constitution is broader here because: (1) “the federalist concerns that led to the restrained approach adopted by Jones are not at issue when state courts are determining the scope and meaning of their own independent state constitutions”; and (2) “Alaska law has a well-established tradition of requiring on-the-record sentencing explanations and meaningful appellate review of criminal sentences.” Finally, the court used an “emerging consensus” analysis to hold that “a sentence that allows an opportunity for release only after 45 years is a de facto life without parole sentence based primarily on the changing [national] landscape of juvenile sentencing practices post-Miller.” The court agreed with other state courts “that a ‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation’ must mean more than just the possibility of a ‘geriatric release.’”