Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Supreme Court's Addressing Juvenile Life Sentence Issue

Supreme Court justices seemed likely yesterday, according to a Wall Street Journal article (subscription) this morning, to require additional safeguards before juveniles convicted of homicide can be sentenced to life without parole, if not to abolish such sentences for minors altogether.

"A majority of them," the New York Times surmised, "appeared prepared to take an additional step in limiting such punishments, but it was not clear whether it would be modest or large. The court's precedents have created so many overlapping categories — based on age, the nature of the offense and whether judges and juries have discretion to show leniency — that much of the argument was devoted to identifying the possible lines the court could draw.

"In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court abolished the juvenile death penalty, a decision that affected about 70 prisoners. 'It is worth noting,' that decision said, 'that the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction, in particular for a young person.'

"In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole also violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment — but only for crimes that did not involve killings. The decision affected about 130 prisoners convicted of crimes like rape, armed robbery and kidnapping."

The cases on review, the Times related, were Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646, involving an Alabama man who was 14 in 2003 when he and an older youth beat a 52-year-old neighbor and set fire to his home after the three had spent the evening smoking marijuana and playing drinking games. The neighbor died of smoke inhalation. The other, Jackson v. Hobbs, No. 10-9647, concerned an Arkansas man who was 14 when he and two older youths tried to rob a video store in 1999. One of the other youths shot and killed a 28-year old store clerk whose body was found by her mother and 11-year-old son.

"In more than 90 minutes of argument in two cases," Lyle Denniston at ScotusBlog wrote, "there was no sign that a majority would come together on a flat ban for such a sentence for anyone under age 18 — the preferred outcome sought by two youths’ lawyer…. Although the Court has regularly accepted the notion that children are less responsible for their conduct than adults, and that the Constitution must account for that, it has divided deeply as it applied that to the severity of the punishment it will allow. In these cases, most of the Justices appeared to share the sentiment expressed early by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that the Court did not want to be forced to choose between two opposite choices: no life-without-parole sentences for any minor, or no limit on the sentence for anyone no matter how young. And there also seemed to be considerable support for Kennedy's apparent willingness to focus mainly on the question of whether such a sentence should be mandatory and, if so, whether that should be keyed to a specific age. Kennedy's views may be crucial, since he has been the author of the Court's key rulings on youths' sentencing."

An Equal Justice Initiative report in 2007 had identified 19 states -- Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin -- as having life without parole statutes for minors under fourteen.

Miller v. Alabama
Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals opinion
Petition for certiorari

Jackson v. Hobbs
Arkansas Supreme Court opinion
Petition for certiorari

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