Monday, June 25, 2012

Mandatory LWOP For Juveniles Struck Down

Supreme Court Strikes Down Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juveniles:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for states to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The 5-4 decision is in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing. Monday’s decision left open the possibility that judges could sentence juveniles to life without parole in individual cases of murder, but said state laws cannot automatically impose such a sentence.

We “hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’” said Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the opinion for the majority.

She was joined in that opinion by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
Natch. Make sure you understand, however, that it was not a "categorical bar" on LWOP for juveniles (along the lines of Roper's outright ban on the death penalty for juveniles, or Graham's outright ban on LWOP for juveniles for non-homicide crimes).

It was a narrower decision, rejecting the idea that states can legislatively mandate juveniles convicted of homicide be sentence for life without parole. A sentencing judge, taking a "individualized approach" to sentencing, could still sentence a juvenile to LWOP. And life sentences with the possibility of parole are also still constitutional.

From Kagan's majority opinion:
To recap: Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of 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. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth—for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors(including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.

We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments. Because that holding is sufficient to decide these cases, we do not consider Jackson’s and Miller’s alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles, or at least for those 14 and younger.

But 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. Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.

Kagan also smacks down the dissenters and their apocalyptic rhetoric concerning "vicious murderers, not children" and "worst of the worst 17 year olds" by noting the irony: it is precisely the case by case approach that will ensure the worst of the worst offender gets a lwop sentence and others don't.

And fundamentally, when you look at the vast majority of the 2,500 juveniles/adults serving LWOP sentences currently in the U.S., they do not come close to meeting the "worst of the worst" label, in any shape or form.

Not sure where those defendants go from here (nothing about retroactivity as far as I could tell in the opinion; Doug Berman has more). But lets' hope some of these defendants (like entire group portrayed in the Frontline documentary from five years ago) are released post-haste.

And congratulations to the Pendulum Foundation and other organizations who have fought against these mandatory provisions for a decade or more. Another piece of the "get tough" myopia of the 1990's now laid on the ash heap of history.

The case is Miller v. Alabama (2012)

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