Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Postscript to Supreme Court Juvenile Life Sentence Decision

"The Supreme Court's ruling Monday barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder was the sharpest indication to date of a shift in how the American judicial system was starting to view young felons -- from irredeemable predators to victims of circumstance with a potential for rehabilitation," a New York Times analysis began this morning.

"'We are starting to see a very stark and important rethinking of how we treat juvenile criminal offenders,' Marsha Levick, co-founder of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia was quoted as saying. 'For years we were trying to convince the courts that kids have constitutional rights just like adults… Now we realize that to ensure that kids are protected, we have to recognize that they are actually different from adults.' That sense of difference has fueled the Supreme Court decisions of the past seven years — first a ruling that barred the death penalty for juveniles in 2005; one that banned life in prison for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide in 2010; and now Monday's ruling that rendered invalid state laws requiring youths convicted of homicide as well to die in prison… (the) opinion by Justice Elena Kagan did not outlaw all life sentences without parole for all juveniles but discouraged it, stating that given all that the court had learned in recent cases '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.'

The Times article predicted the lower courts would likely be heeding this to some extent, but whether state legislatures would go so far as to change their sentencing laws would remain to be seen. Some, however, believe they will, it said, quoting Irene Sullivan, who recently retired after 12 years as a juvenile and family court judge in Clearwater, Fla., who commented that much of the mandatory sentencing of juveniles had been an unintended consequence of legislation aimed at adults.

Here in Ohio, for instance, back in April our supreme court voided provisions of our sex offender registration statute impose automatic lifelong registration and community notification requirements on juvenile sex offenders who had been tried within the juvenile court system, finding them unconstitutionally "cruel & unusual." Justice Paul E. Pfeifer concluded, in the Court's
summary, that "In sum, the limited culpability of juvenile non-homicide offenders who remain within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the severity of lifetime registration and notification requirements of PRQJOR status, and the inadequacy of penological theory to justify the punishment all lead to the conclusion that the lifetime registration and notification requirements in R.C. 2152.86 are cruel and unusual. We thus hold that for a juvenile offender who remains under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the Eighth Amendment forbids the automatic imposition of lifetime sex offender registration and notification requirements." this morning noted Monday’s Supreme Court ruling "paves the way for roughly 2,000 inmates nationwide to seek reversal of their life sentences, according to Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the lawyer for the two inmates whose cases were ruled on by the high court. Stevenson said, 'This was an incredibly important step forward in recognizing one of the great tragedies of our time," namely the large-scale incarceration of juveniles under sentences that give them no hope of release after rehabilitation, but warned of a coming crisis in finding enough lawyers to represent the inmates who are entitled to relief because of the ruling in states that do not provide lawyers for indigent defendants on appeal.

At the other end of that spectrum – effective next week, by the way – Ohio Rule of Juvenile Procedure (Juv. R 3) will now allow juveniles to waive their right to counsel only after consultation with an attorney and require such a waiver be determined to have been knowingly and intelligently given after detailed and specific instructions are made by the judge in writing and on the record.

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