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October 29, 2009

A California perspective on the juve LWOP issues before the Supreme Court

Thanks to How Appealing, we can all read this interesting article by Lawrence Hurley in The Daily Journal of California, which is headlined "U.S. Supreme Court Considers Life Sentences For Juveniles." As these excerpts reveal, the piece provides a west-coast perspective in the issues that the Justices will be dealing with the in the Graham and Sullivan cases:

The future of four prison inmates in California could hang in the balance when the U.S. Supreme Court debates next month whether juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses.

Four convicted felons in the state received such sentences.  Life without parole for crimes not involving murder is not a common punishment for juveniles in California — not to mention the nation as a whole — but on Nov. 9 the Supreme Court will take up the issue when the justices hear arguments in two cases out of Florida....

The cases have attracted considerable attention from legal groups, with experts predicting it could be the start of a concerted attack on the entire concept of life without parole. Some liberal activists and scholars view life without parole in a similar light as the death penalty.

California is one of eight states that have sentenced juveniles to life without parole for certain non-capital crimes. The four males currently serving such sentences were convicted between 1993 and 2003, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data that was made available to the Public Interest Law Center at Florida State University.  They were aged 16 or 17 when they committed the crimes.  The prison service's data does not detail the nature of their offenses, but they are all thought to be kidnapping-related, a Corrections Department spokesman said.  The state will not release the names of the four inmates.

When murder offenses are included, there are 263 inmates in California prisons serving life without parole for offenses committed when they were juveniles. They make up a small number of the roughly 170,000 inmates in California's state prisons....

Law-and-order conservatives ... are worried that the cases could open the door to a wider challenge against all sentences of life without parole. As Kent S. Scheidegger, an attorney at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, noted, "the ink was barely dry on Roper" before lawyers started making the argument that life without parole for juveniles was also unconstitutional.

His main concern is that even a narrow Supreme Court decision to restrict life without parole for juveniles in certain circumstances could help civil rights groups in future cases. "We are more worried about a 'small step' effect," Scheidegger said.

Activists who have been leading an unsuccessful fight — at least so far — to reform California's sentencing laws are now hoping the Supreme Court will do the job for them. Legislation that would allow an individual sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile to seek re-sentencing after serving at least 10 years in prison has so far failed to pass the California Assembly.

Elizabeth Calvin, a Santa Monica-based senior advocate at Human Rights Watch, said it was gratifying that the Supreme Court had at least "recognized this is such a serious issue" by agreeing to hear the cases.  The publicity generated by the Florida cases is also helpful to her group's cause, she said, because it's contributed to "a growing awareness that the U.S. is the only country that uses this sentence."

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

October 29, 2009 at 12:30 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I most certainly did NOT refer to the defense-side organizations as "civil rights groups."

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 29, 2009 1:51:48 PM

"Some liberal activists and scholars view life without parole in a similar light as the death penalty. "
And that is what this is about. The gradual elimination of LWOP. That is why I hope they fail. For some crimes, whether the crime is committed by an adult of child, LWOP is the ONLY punishment.
We do not want to revert back to 40 -50 years ago where you can commit murder and the real punishment is only 10 years at most of prison time.

Posted by: Jim | Oct 29, 2009 1:52:55 PM

"Some liberal activists and scholars view life without parole in a similar light as the death penalty. "
And that is what this is all about. The elimination of LWOP. For some crimes, whether the criminal is an adult or child, LWOP is the only punishment. That is why I hope this group fails, I do not want murders to be set free.

At one point, murders only did about 10 years in prison. They were then allowed to go free and would commit more crimes. I do not want to return to that point in history.

Posted by: Jim | Oct 29, 2009 1:56:46 PM

Kent. Yeah, I see what you are upset about. It makes you sound like you are "anti civil rights" which I don't think you are. It's kind of an underhanded move on the part of the journalist and I suspect reveals his true sympathies. Thanks for pointing that out. I'll now discredit that piece even more than I do most journalism.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 29, 2009 2:34:32 PM

Thanks, Daniel. I don't regard it as underhanded, just sloppy.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 29, 2009 3:26:24 PM

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