Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Pick On Someone Your Own Size

SCOTUS Expands Parole Rights For Juveniles Sentenced to Life:

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that its 2012 decision banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively, granting a new chance at release for hundreds of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murders they committed in their youth.

The vote was 6 to 3, and the majority decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s leading proponent of cutting back on the death penalty and other harsh punishments for entire classes of offenders. His opinion strengthened the 2012 decision, which merely required new sentencing where life without parole had been imposed automatically, without taking into account the defendant’s youth.

Monday’s opinion indicated that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders should be exceedingly rare. Justice Kennedy also gave states a second option — instead of resentencing the affected prisoners, they could make them eligible for parole.

In the 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that automatic life sentences for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Life-without-parole sentences would remain permissible, the court said, but only after individualized consideration. But the court did not say whether the decision was merely prospective or whether it required new sentencing hearings or other review for offenders who had already exhausted their appeals.
As I and others wrote back in 2012 when Miller came down, this question of retroactivity (re Teague v. Lane 1989, and others) would eventually come back before the court. What I didn't predict is that the five who wrote the Miller decision would pick up a vote (CJ Roberts) to join them.

Doug Berman speculates that maybe there was a bit of horsetrading going on (Roberts joins this, the other five stop short of banning all life sentences for all juveniles). Lyle Denniston doesn't really touch on Roberts joining the majority, but gives a reasoned summary of the decision.

I just think it's interesting since at orals in October, he seemed as skeptical as the other three dissenters.

Nonetheless, the day this decision came down, the president also announced a categorical ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, another landmark move for juvenile rights in the criminal justice system.
President Obama on Monday banned the practice of holding juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons, saying it could lead to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.”

The move, which Mr. Obama outlined in an op-ed article published by The Washington Post on Monday night, adds the weight of the federal government to a growing movement among state prison administrators, who have begun sharply limiting or ending the use of solitary confinement.

Mr. Obama said federal prisons would no longer use solitary confinement for juveniles or for inmates serving time for low-level infractions. He said the change, along with expanded mental health treatment, would affect as many as 10,000 inmates in the federal system, about a tenth of those being held in solitary confinement in the United States, including in state prisons.
Again, somewhat limited in the sense that it affects only federal institutions (the vast majority of juveniles and/or mentally ill inmates are held in state facilities), but sweeping nevertheless. And his op-ed in the WaPo was even more forceful, even perhaps sending a signal to SCOTUS that the practice might be scrapped permanently as well.
There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses. As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact. 

As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe. And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent. In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.  
He may have also sent a signal to the Catholic members of the court:
In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals. 
If you remember, Anthony Kennedy issued a out-of-the-blue concurrence in a death penalty case last summer where he suggested it might be time to reconsider solitary as a violation of the 8th amendment. Expect that war drum to get louder as we move forward.

Overall, between the court decision and Obama's order banning solitary, it was a good day for juveniles in the criminal justice system. And a better day for the country. 

The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016)

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