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.