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November 21, 2017

"Justice at Last for the Youngest Inmates?"

13046135_1510955771706The question in the title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial about juve LWOP sentencing that starts with another question and answer: "How many times does the Supreme Court have to repeat itself before its message gets through?  In the case of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, the answer seems to be: at least one more time." Here is more:

On Tuesday, the justices will meet to consider whether to hear two separate cases asking them to ban those sentences categorically, in line with the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.  It should be an easy call.  For more than a decade, the court has been moving in the right direction, growing ever more protective of juveniles who are facing the harshest punishments in our justice system.

In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for people who committed their crimes before turning 18.  In 2010, it outlawed juvenile sentences of life without the possibility of parole in all cases but homicide.  In 2012, it barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles in all cases.  And in 2016, it made that ruling retroactive for the more than 2,000 inmates already sentenced....

[S]ince the court’s string of rulings, many more states have come on board; 20 states and the District of Columbia now ban the sentence in all cases. In four other states it exists on the books but is never imposed in practice. Even Pennsylvania, the juvenile-lifer capital of the country, has since the 2016 ruling avoided seeking such sentences in all but the rarest circumstances.  Not surprisingly, new sentences of life without parole for juveniles have also dropped sharply.

But in a few states, prosecutors are still behaving as though the last 12 years never happened. The problem is worst in Louisiana and Michigan, which together account for more than a quarter of all juvenile lifers. In Michigan, prosecutors are seeking resentences of life without parole in more than half of all the state’s cases, which meets no one’s definition of “uncommon.”  In Louisiana, the state wants life without parole for 82 of the 258 people whose mandatory sentence was struck down last year.  The numbers are even worse at the local level. New Orleans prosecutors are seeking life without parole in half of all cases; in West Baton Rouge Parish, 100 percent.

Statistics like these have nothing to do with careful consideration of “the mitigating qualities of youth,” as Justice Elena Kagan put it in the Miller case, and everything to do with blind retribution. The insistence on maximum punishment is even harder to understand when one considers that the court has hardly issued a get-out-of-jail card to those juveniles serving life without parole.  It has said only that people whose crime occurred when they were too young to vote or buy beer should get “some meaningful opportunity,” usually only after decades in prison, to make a case for release.

As long as there’s a loophole, however, Michigan and Louisiana appear eager to drive a truck through it.  For the sake of the hundreds of juveniles in those states, many of whom have spent decades rehabilitating themselves, and to reaffirm the court’s role as the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution, the justices should ban these sentences for good.

I suspect that Justice Kennedy is still not yet ready to embrace a categorical ban on juve LWOP sentences in all circumstances, and this means there are likely not the SCOTUS five votes needed to move Eighth Amendment jurisprudence where the New York Times is urging.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press has this recent lengthy article under the headline "Michigan remains a battleground in a juvenile justice war keeping hundreds in prison," which further details the ugly record of the state up north in this arena. Here is a snippet:

A year and a half after the Supreme Court ruled that all juvenile lifers across the nation should have the opportunity to be re-sentenced and come home, fewer than 10% of those in Michigan — a total of 34 — have been discharged.

The number, while low, could be chalked up to byzantine bureaucracy and the many moving parts of the criminal justice system. Civil rights activists, however, contend that while an array of procedures have slowed down the re-sentencing process nationally, Michigan is unique in its simple reluctance to recommend shorter sentences.

According to data from court records and the Michigan Department of Corrections, prosecutors in 18 Michigan counties have recommended continued life without parole sentences for all of the juvenile lifers under their purview. Statewide, 66% of Michigan's juvenile lifers have been recommended for the continued life sentence — a sentence which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional but for the rarest of cases.

"First, Michigan took the strongest position in the country against children having a second chance, and now Michigan prosecutors are defying the Supreme Court’s holding that all children are entitled to a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release," said civil rights attorney Deborah LaBelle, who is one of several leading the charge to upturn the current status quo. "They are resisting the explicit ruling of the Supreme Court that this sentence can only be imposed on the rarest of children who commit a homicide and is irreparably corrupted," she continued.

And while the recommendations are a moving target, with some county prosecutors re-evaluating their filings — Saginaw County, for example, originally recommended 20 out of 22 defendants for continued life, but now contends that over half their recommendations have either changed or are now "undetermined" — the uncertainty means hundreds remain in the dark. They recognize the prospect of maybe, possibly, one day coming home, but have no clear roadmap of how this can come to be.

As the legal players dispute the intentions of the high court, men and women just like Hines, persist in a criminal justice limbo, while family members of victims are asked to grapple with unresolved emotions surrounding some of the most traumatic experiences in their lives. The disconnect has meant Michigan — already a touchstone in the juvenile lifer debate, with one of the largest populations in the nation — remains a battleground in a war many assumed to be over.

November 21, 2017 at 11:13 AM | Permalink

Comments

LWOP ensures that victims' families can't murder the guilty party. Charles Manson lived as long as he did because he was kept safe from harm. He said so himself--"I'd be dead if I were on the streets".

Posted by: Overton Windows and Doors | Nov 21, 2017 2:35:35 PM

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