Friday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Texas House, Senate to Debate Juvenile Justice Bill Thursday,

The Texas House and Senate will each take up a juvenile justice bill Thursday that would change how 17-year-olds who are convicted of capital crimes are sentenced.

Right now, people who are convicted of a capital offense that was committed at the age of 17 are only eligible for two sentences under Texas law – death or the possibility of life without parole.

But a Supreme Court decision last year said that only allowing juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and because of that decision, the Texas law needs to be changed.


NY Juvenile Age Should Be Raised, Group Says, Beaumont Enterprise

NEW YORK (AP) — Every year, nearly 50,000 children arrested, charged and processed in New York are done so as adults — and a new coalition of advocates and lawmakers wants to change that.

The coalition of about two dozen groups launched a statewide public information campaign Thursday to change the way the state handles 16- and 17-year-old defendants, said Jennifer March-Joly, one of the coalition’s organizers and the executive director of Citizens’Committee for Children of New York.


Juvenile Records Will Soon Become More Difficult for the Public to View,

Jeramie Shemonia spent months trying to find a job and land an apartment. Some interviews went very well for the 18-year-old, but then weeks passed without a return phone call.

Shemonia was shocked to find out later that a quick computer search of his criminal background repeatedly shut the door before he had a chance to tell his story. More than a year ago, an alcohol-related incident with a roommate ended in three felony charges. Shemonia pleaded guilty to one minor assault count and the others were dismissed.

In the future, a new state law will limit public access to nonviolent crime records for 16- and 17-year-olds. It’s part of a comprehensive legislative effort to get offenders such as Shemonia past a permanent roadblock that often leads back to a jail cell.


Federal Judge will hear arguments on Michigan gay marriage ban, adoption in October, Detroit Free Press

A federal judge says he’ll hear arguments Oct. 1 on the legality of Michigan’s ban on gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.

Judge Bernard Friedman set the date Wednesday in what could be a ground-breaking lawsuit filed by two Detroit-area nurses who are lesbians.

Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer and three adopted children live under one roof in Hazel Park. But Michigan law bars the women from jointly adopting each other’s kids.

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.