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September 28, 2009

An early preview of Graham and Sullivan, the SCOTUS juve LWOP cases

Juve lwop

Writing in today's Los Angeles Times, David Savage has this preview of the two big Eighth Amendment cases to be heard this fall by the Supreme Court. The piece is headlined "Supreme Court to consider juvenile 'lifers': Does life without parole for minors who didn't kill constitute cruel and unusual punishment?". Here are excerpts:

According to Amnesty International, "The United States is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles."

Nearly all of the estimated 2,500 U.S. prisoners serving life terms for juvenile crimes, the group said, were guilty either of murder or of participating in a crime that led to a homicide. But 109 inmates are serving life sentences for other crimes committed when they were younger than 18.

Sullivan's and Graham's lawyers do not claim the young men deserve to go free. "We are not asking for Mr. Graham to be released any time soon," attorney Bryan Gowdy said. "We are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a sentence of life without parole for these crimes. It would be entirely different if Mr. Graham had a meaningful opportunity for parole."

The question will be an early test of whether Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, will align herself with the court's tough-on-crime conservatives or join with its liberals to strike down prison policies perceived as going too far.

Sullivan’s and Graham’s cases will be heard in November. Many lawyers and prosecutors said that until the Supreme Court agreed this year to take up the issue, they were unaware of juveniles receiving such sentences....

Florida leads the nation in sending teenagers to prison for life with no possible parole for crimes such as burglary, assault or rape. It has at least 77 such inmates. California and six other states also have at least one. "This is a hidden group. They don't get a lot of attention because there was no homicide," said Paolo Annino, a law professor at Florida State University who has compiled national data on these prisoners.

California officials said they were unaware of having four such inmates until they checked their database at Annino's request. Two years ago, California joined many other states in prohibiting the sentencing of young offenders to life in prison. But that measure did not affect inmates who had already been sentenced.

Annino and others point to two trends in the 1980s that led to juveniles serving life terms. First was the national move to abolish parole, reflecting fears that violent criminals could not be safely released. Second was the increased prosecution of young criminals as adults.

In defense of its life-in-prison policy, Florida's lawyers have pointed to several deadly attacks on European visitors carried out by young criminals. These violent incidents were "threatening the state's bedrock tourism industry," Florida's lawyers said in the opening paragraph of their brief to the Supreme Court in the Graham case.

Other recent posts on juve LWOP and the Graham and Sullivan cases:

September 28, 2009 at 07:15 PM | Permalink

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