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May 4, 2009

SCOTUS grants cert in Sullivan, juve LWOP case

As detailed in this order list, among the cases in which the Supreme Court granted cert this morning is Sullivan v. Florida.  As detailed in posts linked below, Sullivan involves an Eighth Amendment challenge a sentence of life without parole given to a rape defendant who was only 13 years old(!) at the time of the crime.  For a variety of reasons, Sullivan has the potential to be the biggest non-capital Eighth Amendment case decided by the Supreme Court in many years.

Interestingly, as noted here by SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court also took up a companion juve LWOP case, Graham v. Florida, which apparently involves an life sentence for a non-murder crime committed by a 17-year-old offender.  As suggested in the prior paragraph, Sullivan and Graham are likely to be the cases to watch for sentencing fans in the next SCOTUS Term (which, of course, is going to involve a brand new Justice).  Exciting times.

Some related posts on juve LWOP and the Sullivan case:

May 4, 2009 at 10:13 AM | Permalink

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Comments

It's not this case, but others. LWOP has to be an option for some juvenile offenders. And rescuing this criminals' life is not worth the danger to the ability to lock up dangerous juveniles forever.

Posted by: federalist | May 4, 2009 10:38:13 AM

feddie:

I think the reason the Court took both grants is to decide where the cut-off point is. The idea of locking up 17 year olds for life is a lot more palatable than locking up, as some states routinely do, a 13 or 14 for life. The Court dual cert grants provides an excellent vehicle for setting down some bright line rules.

Posted by: anon | May 4, 2009 11:04:19 AM

The problem is that, at least from a psychological point of view, every type of social norming like this is fundamentally arbitrary. There is no uniform pace of childhood development and it's entirely possible that a 13 year old is more more morally culpable than an 20 year old. Physical age and psychological age bear only a rough, and sometimes rather tenuous, relationship to each other.

One approach to this is to draw socially normed lines and to recognize that a certain amount of injustice is the price we have to pay for administrative efficiency, as we do with the voting and drinking ages. The other approach would be to take psychology and psychological analysis seriously. But as federalist and others have pointed before, that's a non-starter because it smacks too much like psychologists telling lawyers what to do.

So yeah, I think they are taking these cases to decide just where to draw the line. We just need to be honest that such a socially normed line amounts to nothing more than a magical incantation that bears no relationship to anything called justice.

Posted by: Daniel | May 4, 2009 11:33:17 AM

Just so long as you realize, anon, that if this 13 yo criminal wins, innocent people will likely pay the price. If you're cool with that, fine; I am not. And I certainly don't think that five Justices of the Supreme Court ought to be making that decision.

Posted by: federalist | May 4, 2009 11:55:12 AM

I think we should note that relief for Sullivan and/or Graham would not (at least not necessarily) impair the State's ability to lock up juvenile offenders forever. It would just mean that, at a minimum, the State needs to reconsider at some point whether the offender is still dangerous (say, with a parole hearing at age 35 or 40). Given the legitimate development changes that occur between, say, 13 and 22, as well as studies showing a very, very steep drop off in violent behavior after about age 35, this seems completely reasonable.

If a kid commits a horrible crime at 15, but takes advantage of resources in prison, educates himself, and becames a thoughtful adult, what is the value in society paying to encarcerated him for 30 or 40 more years after age 35?? On the other hand, if a kid commits a horrible crime, goes to prison, and becomes more brutal and antisocial, the parole process is there to make sure he does not get out. (I realize that some people believe juvenile LWOP is justified/required on pure retributive lines, but I can't accept that. Spending the years of 14 or 15 through 35 -- more or less the prime of your life -- in prison is a terrible, effective punishment, especially considering the mitigated culpability of a juvenile.)

Posted by: Observer | May 4, 2009 11:59:41 AM

Observer, I think we all know that "system" you propose won't happen. When you give criminals the shot at parole, whether or not they deserve it, some will get out. I could live with some minumum form of executive clemency mandated by the Constitution. I realize, of course, that not all states allow governors to make the call.

Posted by: federalist | May 4, 2009 12:09:06 PM

Sullivan certainly seems a likely case for relief. While the court could draw a bright line, I could also see it requiring particularized findings, something like those for an abortion judicial bypass to show that this particular young offender is unredeemable.

Also, it is worth noting that most of the extreme sentences upheld under 8th Amendment challege have involved recidivist offenders. One could see all juveniles receiving the somewhat more generous review that non-recidivists do.

Posted by: ohwilleke | May 4, 2009 1:09:39 PM

Inmate Advocate For Change. I guess that no one but me lives in the great state of Florida, because if you did you would know that our Parole Board (who is getting a new name btw) Commission for Offender Assessment and Transition, almost makes me sick..but back to the point, it doesn't matter what they call themselves they don't Parole anyone anyway. I have listened to Parole hearings and if they get rid of the Salient Scoring Sheet and look at the inmate, then they might just Parole them. YO's LWOP is something I have written about many times to our Legislature, it is a violation of their Civil Rights, if they were 18 then they would have gotten something much less than LWOP,if they had a decent lawyer. I hope that they win their cases and that we stop the practice in this state. We are #3 for number of inmates in DOC, and we are nothing compared to CA and TX, whose population is easily three times as many as ours. I don't think that I want to brag about our numbers in this state, I would like to see some changes that would put Rehab and Re-Entry in the mouths of the Politicans here, before long we will all be inmates we don't want to import them, but who is left?

Posted by: Linda | May 4, 2009 9:25:31 PM

Daniel wrote: "The problem is that, at least from a psychological point of view, every type of social norming like this is fundamentally arbitrary. There is no uniform pace of childhood development and it's entirely possible that a 13 year old is more more morally culpable than an 20 year old. Physical age and psychological age bear only a rough, and sometimes rather tenuous, relationship to each other."

Psychologists have much less to say about this than neuroscientists. The fact of the matter is that, biologically, the human brain is not fully developed until a person is in his or her 20's. There's a reason why teenagers are stupid, and it isn't just because they are inexperienced with the world. They literally are not yet fully "human." And while age is certainly arbitrary considered psychologically, it is much less so when considered biologically.

Posted by: DK | May 4, 2009 10:38:08 PM

Aren't 40 year olds more mature than 20 year olds? Aren't 60 year olds more mature than 40 year olds? Aren't 80 year olds more mature than 60 year olds?

Perhaps the age of responsibility should be set at 100. That way, the Justices would almost be there.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 4, 2009 11:41:00 PM

DK. here we go again. What a bunch of nonsense. The brain is no more "fully developed" at age 20 than it is at age 15. The line that neuroscientists draw is just as arbitrary as the one drawn by sociologists. They only use a different data set, that's all.

And the comment that people who don't meet the neuroscientists definition of "fully developed" means that they are not "fully human" is truly perverted. Human development just is a fully human process.

The difference between psychologists and some of the other sciences is that we don't pretend. We see too much of that in our patients. Put another way, we are not so silly as to reify our concepts. Neuroscience has some important insights into the human brain and it's impact on what we call mind and will. But when it comes to concepts like "fully human" it's ranting at the wall just as much as everyone else.

Posted by: Daniel | May 5, 2009 1:42:36 AM

Daniel wrote: "The brain is no more "fully developed" at age 20 than it is at age 15. The line that neuroscientists draw is just as arbitrary as the one drawn by sociologists. They only use a different data set, that's all."

No, that's patently false. Biology is not psychology and, while ultimately every line you can draw about the world is "arbitrary," some are less so than others. You seem to be capable of thinking only in psychological terms. A brain is indeed biologically more developed at 20 than 15 in every case. And these differences matter.

“The evidence now is strong that the brain does not cease to mature until the early 20s in those relevant parts that govern impulsivity, judgment, planning for the future, foresight of consequences, and other characteristics that make people morally culpable .... Indeed, age 21 or 22 would be closer to the 'biological' age of maturity."

http://www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvjus/Adolescence.pdf

(I think it should have been obvious that I used scare quotes around the term human so as for it not to be read literally.)

Posted by: DK | May 6, 2009 12:42:41 AM

luv that stuff!

Posted by: buy acai berry | Jan 21, 2010 3:13:22 PM

injustice any where is a threat to justic every where.all the studies are out there, but the laws just refuse to recognize them.because it is easier to prosicute then to changh thier laws.

Posted by: cindy | Jun 2, 2010 8:50:36 PM

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