Juvenile Justice

Monday, November 09, 2009

Smitty gave me a heads up that The Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments in Graham v. Florida (08-7412) and Sullivan v. Florida (08-7621). These cases dealt with the Constitutionality of imposing a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a juvenile. I told Smitty that it was interesting that issue has never come up, but he suggested that those kind of sentences were probably not used on juveniles until relatively recently.

Scotus Blog has an excellent analysis or the arguments and discussions. If you are interested in the briefs and petitions filed up until now, I would suggest checking out scotuswiki. Last, but not least, NPR has a good article on the background of the two petitioners, Terrance Graham and Joe Sullivan.

The NPR article is a good place to start. Not surprising, Florida has 70% of the juvenile offenders locked up for life for crimes other than murder. Graham was convicted of armed robbery and Sullivan for raping an elderly woman. Neither person, in my mind, garners a whole lot of sympathy, but the question then becomes is it reasonable to lock them up and throw away the key?

Scotus Blog details some of the arguments made. For the State of Florida:

The state of Florida’s lawyer, Solicitor General Scott D. Makar from Tallahassee opened his argument by contending that a categorical bar on life-without-parole for minors would run counter to trends in treating juveniles over past couple of decades, frustrating states in their attempts to deal with rising juvenile crime while still remaining sensitive to the needs of youthful offenders.

Interesting, as most studies show that juvenile crime is the lowest it has been in years. Additionally, I don't believe that life sentences are a deterrent to a juvenile that is considering a criminal act. The justices seemed to vary in opinion from some supporting developing a bright line rule that would prohibit these sentences below a certain age. The Chief Justice seemed to prefer:

...to recruit a majority of the Supreme Court in favor of giving juveniles more chance to use their age to challenge life-without-parole prison terms, as an alternative to a flat constitutional bar against ever imposing that sentence.

There was this exchange with Sotomayor:

After Makar had said that Florida acknowledged that youthful age “does matter,” Justice Sotomayor asked for help in drawing the line where life-without-parole would be permissible. Would it be unconstituional if the youth were only 10? she asked. If that is too early, she said, why would 14 or 15 not be too early? Makar would only concede that “I think it [age] does matter.” Sotomayor was not satisfied, next asking about a no-release sentence for a five-year-old.

A five year old? I am sure that Sotomayor well knows that a 5 year old lacks the ability to form an intent to commit a crime. This seems like she wanted to be melodramatic. Lighten up Sonia.

I think the Founding Fathers did a good job in phrasing the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. They allowed for changes in society, as opposed to defining what was specifically cruel and unusual. In the late 18th century, all felonies were punished by death and children could receive pretty harsh punishments. Even as late at the early 20th century, punishments for juveniles were severe and due process was almost non-existent. Gradually, procedural safeguards were set up and, most recently, the Supreme Court said the death penalty could not be applied to juveniles.

I am leaning towards a ban on life sentences without parole for juveniles. Courts already have discretion in charging people under the age of 18 as adults. Most of the time, going through the juvenile system offers more flexibility in terms of treatments and punishments. While there are some youths that are likely incorrigible, this is hard to predict and there are certainly crimes that call for a life sentence. The problem is that I see too much potential for abuse, especially in a high profile case. What do the ATK readers think?


Matt Tierney 11:39 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr Furious 11:40 PM  

I'm with you, steves. Ban it.

If the offender is that bad, and continues to be, simply deny parole when it comes up.

Bob 9:00 AM  

I think many in the public will assume that a ban on life sentences without parole will mean that murderers will go free at 18. Wouldn't a ban as you suggest only give an offender a chance at being let out? Wouldn’t a parole board be able to continue to hold the most violent of offenders?

Smitty 9:46 AM  

Parole boards can deny parole until the statutory maximum of a given sentence. If it's a 10-15 year sentence, the early release date (on parole) is 10 years. The parole board can flop over and over again until 15 years, then the person is released (though unsupervised).

What struck me the most in these arguments was when Sotomayor wasn't using hyperbole. It's when she pointed out that the mean sentence for rape is 10 years. Why, then, was life without parole a prudent sentence for a 13 year old with some misdemeanors on his youtful rap sheet?

It isn't prudent. Florida and Louisiana, bastions of jutice though they are, are gunning hard to keep this sentencing structure for "deterrent" purpose. This is despit the fact that all credible research shows that lengthy sentences do not have a deterrent effect.

I am all for a ban on life sentences without parole for juvies, and I'd even say that their parole, upon release, should be supervised. But these kids still have a shot to turn out right. The myth of the juvenile "super predator" from the late 80s never came to fruition. As such, we should abolish the draconian sentencing practices that came as a result of *anticipating* a myth that never came true.

Life without parole is, in my mind, synonimous with a death sentence. In states like Michigan, like most states, we use LWOP in place of capital punishment. If it is true that capital punishment is unconstitutional against minors, then so is LWOP in my mind.

Sopor 10:40 AM  

I would just like to point out that while it is true that the courts have the discretion to charge persons under the age of 18 as adults, in Michigan, starting at the age of 17 you are automatically charged as an adult.

steves 7:43 AM  

About 8 or 9 years ago I attended a conference in East Lansing juvenile psychopathy. The presenters had worked with and interviewed thousands of juvenile offenders, including hundreds that fit the definition of psychopath or sociopath. One of the things they were working on was an assessment tool to figure out who were the psychopaths and who weren't.

For the most part, a genuine psychopath is not really treatable and, in most cases, should be locked up or closely monitored in some way. If it would be possible to reliably identify juveniles that were psychopaths, then I would support some kind of life sentence, but I don't think we are there yet.

From what I can tell, in Michigan, juvenile offenders don't usually get LWOP.

We also have the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which allows people between the ages of 17-20 to not have a criminal record once their sentence is served (this does not apply to all crimes).

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