Recently in Juvenile Justice Category

March 16, 2011

Senate Bill 9: Mitigating LWOP Sentences for Youthful Offenders

Senate Bill 9 is a sensible legislative proposal that deserves to become California law.  The proposed law allows a "second chance" for some prisoners who receive LWOP sentences (Life Without Possibility of Parole) for crimes they committed before the age of 18.

The law provides a second chance for offenders who receive LWOP sentences for aiding and abetting an adult offender. If such prisoners don't have other violent crimes on their record, they can apply for sentence reduction after serving at least 10 years in prison. 

Senate Bill 9 is a win-win proposal.  The law can help reduce overcrowding in prison while at the same time the possibility of release can motivate prisoners to engage in activities that demonstrate rehabilitation.  Let's hope the bill becomes law quickly.

May 26, 2010

Graham v. Florida: 8th Amendment Limits Sentences for Juvenile Offenses

In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the US Supreme Court decided that people could not be put to death for crimes that they commit before they turn age 18.  Extending that ruling, the Court has now decided that people cannot be given "life without parole" sentences for non-homicide crimes they commit before they are 18 years old. The case is Graham v. Florida (2010).

Terrance Graham was a crack baby who became a troubled teen-ager. Graham violated probation for an earlier violent crime by participating in an armed home invasion robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison, which in Florida meant that parole was not possible.

The Court stated that the law "denied Graham any chance to demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment (barring cruel and unusual punishment) does not permit." 

The upshot of the Court's opinion is that life without possibility of parole sentences are unconstitutional for crimes that people commit while they are juveniles.  The decision does not mean that Florida must someday release Terrance Graham.  It means only that Florida and all states must provide people like Terrance Graham with an opportunity to show that they have reformed and are capable of leading a decent and law-abiding life.

November 25, 2009

Can Juveniles Be Imprisoned for Life?

In the 2005 case of Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the death penalty cannot be imposed on offnders who were under age 18 when they committed a crime potentially punishable by death.  Four years later, the Court is considering whether juveniles can be sentenced to "life without possibility of parole" (LWOP) or whether such a sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The cases are Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida.  In both cases, under-age 18 offenders were sentenced to LWOP for non-homicide crimes.

The issue raises serious line-drawing problems.  For example, might an LWOP sentence be appropriate for a 17 year old murderer but not for a 10 year old murderer?  And if the Court were to decide that an LWOP sentence for a 17 year old is unconstitutional, why would it be constitutional to sentence an 18 year old or a 19 year old to LWOP?    

During oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts tried to arouse his colleagues' interest in a middle ground rule.  Roberts suggested that the 8th Amendment should not be interpreted as an absolute bar to an LWOP sentence for minors, but rather should be read to require courts to take an offender's youth into account when deciding upon punishment, and to make the sentence proportional to the seriousness of the crime.  I don't think that criminal defense lawyers will consider that an appealing compromise.

The outcome is hard to predict.  But with the death penalty already off limits and a widepsread belief that violent juvenile crime is out of control, the odds seem against a ruling that LWOP sentences for juvniles are unconstitutional in all situaitons. 

January 6, 2009

Life Sentences for Juvenile Criminals?

In the case of Roper v. Simmons (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty cannot be imposed on juvenile offenders. The next logical issue is whether juvenile offenders can be given an LWOP sentence -- that is, a sentence of Life Without Parole.

LWOP sentences for adult offenders are routine.  The availability of LWOP, and the realization that LWOP sentences are strictly enforced, have undoubtedly contributed to the reductions in the number of adult offenders sentenced to death in recent years.

But should teenage offenders, even those who have committed heinous crimes, have to spend the rest of their lives in jail?  In Roper, the Court emphasized that youthful offenders are less blameworthy than adults because they lack maturity and are more subject to negative peer pressure than adults.  Should these same factors lead to a conclusion that LWOP sentences are as invalid as death sentences for juvenile offenders?  International law and a handful of states already forbid LWOP sentences for juveniles.  Surely it won't be long before the U.S. Supreme Court is confronted with deciding the issue.