Tuesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

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Is 100 Years a Life Sentence? Opinions are Divided, New York Times

If people who are too young to vote commit crimes short of murder, the Supreme Court said in 2010, they should not be sentenced to die in prison. That sounds straightforward enough. But there are two ways to understand the decision, Graham v. Florida.

One is formal. The court may have meant only to bar sentences labeled “life without parole.” On that understanding, judges remained free to impose very long sentences — 100 years, say — as long as they were for a fixed term rather than for life.  That is how Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in dissent, urged lower-court judges to interpret the decision . . .

The other way to understand the decision is practical. If the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment requires that young offenders be left with a glimmer of hope that they may someday be released, it should not matter whether they were sentenced to life in so many words or as a matter of rudimentary actuarial math.

The lower courts are split on how to interpret the Graham decision, and the Supreme Court seems to be in no hurry to answer the question. Last week, the justices turned away an appeal from Chaz Bunch of Ohio, who was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman in a carjacking when he was 16. He was sentenced to 89 years. Even assuming he becomes eligible for early release, he will be 95 years old before he can leave prison . . .

An appeals court in Florida last year listed some of them in upholding a 76-year sentence meted out to Leighdon Henry, who was 16 when he committed rape.

“At what number of years would the Eighth Amendment become implicated in the sentencing of a juvenile: 20, 30, 40, 50, some lesser or greater number?” Judge Jacqueline R. Griffin wrote for the court.

Mr. Henry is black and was born in 1989. The life expectancy of black males born that year was 64, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Life expectancy in prison is shorter than it is outside.  Wherever the line is, then, a 76-year sentence would seem to be past it . . .

By international standards, the American approach to juvenile justice is an oddity. “There is no other country in which a person is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed before the age of 18,” said Alison Parker, the director of United States programs for Human Rights Watch.

Before the Miller [v. Alabama] decision, there were about 2,500 juvenile offenders serving sentences of life without parole. The current number is hard to nail down, but it is presumably dropping . . .  The number of juvenile offenders serving de facto life terms because of very long sentences is probably in the hundreds.  [Probably higher.]

Juvenile Justice and Youth Advocates See Impacts from Sequester & Brace for More, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

In the lead-up to federal budget sequestration, advocates warned of dire consequences for juvenile justice and services to children and youth. Now, with sequestration in effect for nearly two months, impacts are materializing across the country, although some programs have been at least partially spared. Yet in many cases, youth-serving organizations still do not know how they will be impacted, only that there will be impacts.

Juvenile justice and delinquency prevention programs in many states have yet to see cuts due to sequestration, but the impacts may be felt when 2013 funds are distributed in the fall, said Meg Williams, juvenile justice specialist for the State of Colorado. Although the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has not released official numbers, many state programs expect their OJJDP funding to be reduced by 7 or 8 percent and are trying to plan accordingly, she added.

More Analysis on Today’s Alabama v. Miller Decision

Ellen Marrus is the George Butler Research Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center. Professor Marrus also serves as Director of UH’s Center for Children, Law & Policy and Director of the Southwest Juvenile Defender Center. She received her J.D. in 1990 from the University of San Francisco and her LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center in 1992. She came to the University of Houston Law Center in 1995 after practicing as a public defender in California. Professor Marrus concentrates her scholarship in the areas of children’s rights, juvenile justice, and professionalism.

The United States Supreme Court today continued with its line of cases favoring children in the decisions of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. The Court announced that youth under the age of eighteen may not face a mandatory sentence of  life without parole, even in homicide cases. Read the Court’s opinion here. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Kagan stated that “such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability’ and greater ‘capacity for change.’”

As the Court did in the previous cases of Roper and Graham, Justice Kagan relied on three major differences between children and adults – children’s immaturity, vulnerability, and the lack of a juvenile’s character being fully formed. The Court emphasized the need for courts to consider several factors prior to sentencing juveniles including “his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.”

The Court also recognized that juveniles react differently than adults to the legal process. If it was not for a child’s incompetencies such as not knowing how to deal with the police, prosecutors, and in many cases, even his own attorney, “he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense.

Some commentators, myself included, may feel that the Court did not go far enough in this decision and that life without possibility of parole should never be appropriate for juveniles. Although the Court did not yet reach this decision, the opinion did state, “given all we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” At this time, we remain the only country in the world where there is a possibility that a juvenile can be sentenced to die in prison. Hopefully this will change in the near future, and we will join the rest of the world in recognizing that children need to be treated differently than adults so they can demonstrate their ability to change, grow and mature.

Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juveniles Found Unconstitutional

Today, Justice Kagan’s opinion for the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs (Arkansas) was announced.  The Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing of life in prison without parole for juveniles.  This is a great step in understanding that children are different and less mature than adults and deserve punishment that acknowledges these differences.   This opinion could also be viewed as a baby step towards abolishing the death penalty for adults, as it is a rare defendant who has no mitigating circumstances that should be considered before sentencing to death or life without parole.

Miller v. Alabama follows the trend set by the monumental Roper v. Simmons, which held the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles, and Graham v. Florida, which held juveniles cannot be given life without parole for non-homicide offenses.

Miller and Jackson were 14 years old when convicted of capital murder in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. They were sentenced to life in prison without parole under mandatory laws that did not allow for consideration of mitigating circumstances, such as the boys’ age or home environment. About 2,500 people across the country are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were under 18 years old.

The second holding in this case is that defendants are entitled to individualized consideration when facing a punishment as severe as life without parole. This line of reasoning for Eighth Amendment interpretation may also be true for adults facing mandatory life without parole.

The decision was 5-4 with Justice Kagan joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor in the majority. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Sotomayor, concurred separately. Three dissenting opinions were written, by the Chief Justice, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito.

Find more coverage at SCOTUSblog. You can also read the case’s background and appellate briefs in one of our earlier posts. The full opinion can be found at the U.S. Supreme Court’s website.