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Felony Murder Laws and Implications for Youths

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Meg Mikulski
September 21, 2023

In 2015, then 15 year old LaKeith Smith was a part of a group of five juveniles who burglarized homes in Millbrook, Alabama. Police arrived when a burglary was in progress and officers fired shots on the group, fatally striking A’Donte Washington, 16, after Washington charged officers with a firearm. As a result, Smith was tried and convicted under Alabama’s felony murder rule which led to his 65 year consecutive sentence. Amidst civil rights protests and social media attention post-George Floyd, Smith was retried and was resentenced to 30 years. Similarly, in 2005 Terrell Jones, 24, along with his friend, Larry, was involved in a robbery of two strangers.The robbery escalated, and Larry shot and killed one of the victims. Jones did not intend or aid in the murder; nevertheless, Jones was left to face a mandatory life sentence under Illinois’s felony murder statute. The accomplices, Jones and Smith, both currently remain in prison. These cases are prime examples of the felony murder rule in 48 states that trap youths in the criminal justice system for decades, if not life.

What Is “Felony Murder”?

The United States is the only country that still utilizes the felony murder law, and it can be applied to both juveniles and adults. Currently there are 45 states in addition to the District of Columbia and the federal government that use this law. Felony murder laws allow any person who is accused of committing a felony-level crime to be charged with murder if a death occurs within the duration of the crime. Felony murder is thought to be less severe than first (premeditated, intentional) or second degree (unplanned, intentional) murder as the death of a person is unplanned and unintentional; however, legally felony murder is still sentenced under first degree murder guidelines—mandating excessive sentences with natural life with or without possibility of parole as the extreme. The laws between states vastly differ from state to state.

Implications of “Felony Murder” Laws

With this law in place, there is no difference between someone who actually commits a murder and their co-defendants. There currently is no national data regarding the number of individuals incarcerated on felony murder; however, the report authored by The Sentencing Project found data on six jurisdictions to include Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington D.C. Among the jurisdictions, felony murder convictions comprise a quarter to approximately half of the incarcerated population. Felony murder disproportionately affects women, people of color and youths (under 25)—populations that are already overrepresented in the criminal justice system. It is alarming to see that over 60 percent of those sentenced under this law are under 25 and 80 percent were Black and Brown individuals.

Although intended to capture all those who are involved, it is most concerning when youths are being charged with felony murder. Charging youths with felony murder traps them in the criminal justice system and perpetuates the cycle of incarceration for future generations. Even when youths are exempt from life sentences, lengthy sentences still impact their lives by disrupting their family/home life and education and have the potential to increase recidivism rates.

Policy Reforms

At the state level, reform efforts to address felony murder are underway. In Minnesota, HF 1406/SF1478 is being proposed to change the felony murder law to limit first degree murder to those who caused the death or aided and abetted “with intent to cause death of a human being”, which iwould limit second-degree murder to those who were “a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with extreme indifference to human life”. It is also proposed to reduce the sentence for those initially charged under felony murder. In 2021 under the SAFE-T act, Illinois reformed its felony murder law by narrowing the definition of felony murder by prohibiting first-degree murder charges in cases where defendants did not directly commit the murder or did not have knowledge that it would occur, or where a third-party caused the death. However, this bill will not be applied retroactively. California, in 2018, reformed its murder statute by eliminating the liability for co-defendants who did not actively participate in the killing—this will be retroactively applied. California also allowed those charged with felony murder to seek lesser sentences. In Maryland’s 2023 legislative session, SB0652 prohibits those under 25 years old to be charged with first degree murder if they are under 25. and would reduce sentencing for those under 25 who commit a felony.

More Comprehensive Reform Approaches

Despite these state-level efforts, policies can be more comprehensive and address the cycle of incarceration for already high-risk individuals in the system, namely Black and Brown individuals and youths. States such as Illinois, California and Maryland have limited the definition of felony murder, which is a crucial first step. Moreover, comprehensive changes to existing felony murder laws should include: limiting the extent to which the law may be applied, reducing or excluding persons under 25 years of age that can be convicted and reducing the sentence for individuals where they are being charged and convicted of felony murder. Importantly, these changes need to be applied retroactively. To date, no states have implemented a comprehensive policy change. Ultimately, for these comprehensive reform efforts to be adopted, much more attention and support for such change needs to be raised.

This piece is based on the Scholars Strategy Network brief titled, “Felony Murder Laws and Implication for Youth”, which was written by this same author.

Author: Meg Mikulski is currently a graduate student affiliated with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the Public Administration program. She currently works as a licensed Social Worker in Minnesota and is a Research Fellow at the Initiative for Gender Equity in the Public Sector (IGEPS). For further contact: [email protected]

contact: [email protected]

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