Saturday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

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High Court Says State Improperly Requested Medical Records in Truancy Case, Omaha.com

Lisa Siefker has spent two years fighting to get her teenage autistic son to attend school regularly after he violated Nebraska’s controversial truancy law. But the 41-year-old Lincoln woman’s willingness to cooperate reached a limit when state officials overseeing the case wanted to see her confidential medical records . . .

The high court ruled that state caseworkers can’t demand access to a parent’s medical records unless they can show such information would help a child at the center of a juvenile court action. Because Siefker was not at fault for her son’s truancy, a juvenile court judge improperly ordered her to turn over records related to her past treatment for an anxiety disorder.

The ruling raised serious questions about the state’s practice of requiring parents to waive privacy rights when their children are caught in the juvenile justice system. “The issue is whether the court can order a fishing expedition that is unrelated to any rehabilitation plan. The answer is no,” said Judge William Connolly in a separate, concurring opinion.

Officials of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services were reviewing the opinion Thursday, said Russ Reno, a spokesman for the department.  “Generally, the more information DHHS has about a family, the better we can identify the services necessary to assist them, and the better we can do our job,” Reno said.

Lea Wroblewski, an attorney for Legal Aid of Nebraska who represented Lisa Siefker, said it’s not uncommon for juvenile courts to order state inspection of a parent’s confidential medical records. The court orders follow requests by Health and Human Services, which then uses the records to create rehabilitation plans for troubled children and their families . . .

New Hampshire Man Convicted of Killing Kimberly Cates, Maiming Child, Re-Sentenced to Life in Prison, CBS Boston

A New Hampshire man convicted of hacking to death a woman and maiming her daughter in a 2009 home invasion was sentenced once again Friday to life in prison without parole, plus 76 years.

Steven Spader was required to be resentenced under a US Supreme Court ruling last June [Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs] that threw out mandatory life in prison with parole for juveniles. The court held that children cannot be automatically punished the same way as criminal adults without considering their age and other factors.

Spader, who was a month shy of turning 18 when he killed Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon in 2009, did not appear in court for a hearing Monday or for Friday’s sentencing and had instructed his lawyers to present no evidence in support of a reduced sentence.  In a letter to the court, he apologized to the Cates family and said he accepted responsibility for his actions.

In her ruling, Judge Gillian Abramson said she gave no weight to that apology, noting that Spader earlier had said his main regret was not choosing better coconspirators.  She called his letter “self-serving, disingenuous, and inconsistent with the defendant’s true regret,” as well as his ongoing obsession with killing and torture.

“The circumstances of these horrific crimes and the extent of the defendant’s planning and participating warrant the imposition of life without parole and maximum consecutive sentences,” she wrote.

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.