Monday, May 17, 2010

Life in Prison for Some Juveniles Unconstitutional

Justices Bar Life Terms for Youths Who Haven't Killed:

The Supreme Court has ruled that teenagers may not be locked up for life without chance of parole if they haven't killed anyone.

By a 5-4 vote Monday, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.

"The state has denied him any chance to later 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," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. "This the Eighth Amendment does not permit."

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with Kennedy and the court's four liberal justices about Graham. But Roberts said he does not believe the ruling should extend to all young offenders who are locked up for crimes other than murder; he was a "no" vote on the ruling.

So the case itself was actually 6-3, but Roberts disagreed with the "categorical rule" application to all juvenile nonhomicide defendants.

As I often tell students regarding 8th amendment cases and "national consensus," Supreme Court opinions often turn on how the justices numerically count what states are doing. If you read through Kennedy's opinion, the same Trop "evolving standards of decency" application used to strike down the death penalty for juveniles in Roper in 2005 seems to apply in Graham (emphasis mine).

Thirty-seven States, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government permit sentences of life without parole for a juvenile nonhomicide offender in some circumstances. The State relies on these data to argue that no national consensus against the sentencing practice in question exists. An examination of actual sentencing practices in those jurisdictions that permit life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, however, discloses a consensus against the sentence.

Nationwide,there are only 129 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences for nonhomicide crimes. Because 77 of those offenders are serving sentences imposed in Florida and the other 52 are imprisoned in just 10 States and in the federal system, it appears that only 12 jurisdictions nationwide in fact impose life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders, while 26 States and the District of Columbia do not impose them despite apparent statutory authorization.

Given that the statistics reflect nearly all juvenile nonhomicide offenders who have received a life without parole sentence stretching back many years, moreover, it is clear how rare these sentences are, even within the States that do sometimes impose them And none of the legitimate goals of penal sanctions—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation—is adequate to justify life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders.
Check out retiring Justice Steven's smack down of the dissenters.
While JUSTICE THOMAS would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old, the Court wisely rejects his static approach to the law. Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so.
Snicker. According to the dissent (J. Thomas), the majority reaches its conclusions using fuzzy math (emphasis mine).
Although the text of the Constitution is silent regarding the permissibility of this sentencing practice, and although it would not have offended the standards that prevailed at the founding, the Court insists that the standards of American society have evolved such that the Constitution now requires its prohibition.

The news of this evolution will, I think, come as a surprise to the American people. Congress, the District of Columbia, and 37 States allow judges and juries to consider this sentencing practice in juvenile nonhomicide cases, and those judges and juries have decided to use it in the very worst cases they have encountered. The Court does not conclude that life without parole itself is a cruel and unusual punishment.
That is an important point: the court isn't saying LWOP for juveniles who kill is unconstitutional; just those convicted of nonhomicide crimes. But given the tenuous culpability in Felony Murder statutes (which disproportionately affect juvenile offenders), I wonder if those statutes might not fall next.

Nonetheless, I would interpret this as a step in the right direction. These LWOP sentences for juveniles were an outgrowth of the brain-dead 1990's "get tuff on crime" movement. It's nice to see at least part of that twisted legacy relegated to the ash heap of history today.

The case is Graham v. Florida (2010).


Jay Livingston said...

Thomas is the dissenters go-to guy on cruel and unusual punishment. And his objection to the court "its own sense of morality and retributive justice" on state legislatures -- he's plenty ready to impose when states violate his own morality. Alito, Scalia, Thomas -- they're tough on crime. And when Jeff Skilling's case comes up, whose side do you think they'll be on?

Todd Krohn said...

Precisely. I did agree with the Scalia/Thomas camp on the civil commitment case also announced today, but their objection was related to federalism, not the legality of civil commitment. In 1997 they voted to uphold civil commitment.

Thomas' criminal punishment opinions have drifted from get tough to virtual insanity the past few years. Remember the case striking down juvenile strip searches last year, by a vote of 8-1?

He was the one, arguing that strip searching juveniles was the appropriate function of school officials. As I wrote at the time, not even Scalia could go there.

Jay Livingston said...

Thomas also dissented in the case where some prison (Southern, probably) was torturing inmates. I think he said that the Court should not "micromanage" state prisons.

The stories I looked at briefly about the civil commitment case all saw it as proxy for the Obama health care bill -- that the decision was about a principle, namely the powers of Congress. Maybe, but it seems that the justices have lots of principles to choose from, and each chooses the one that is convenient.