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April 9, 2018

Big Third Circuit panel ruling asserts age of retirement should be central to applying Eighth Amendment limits on long juvenile sentences

The Third Circuit today handed down a huge ruling today in US v. Grant, No. 16-3820 (3d CIr. April 9, 2018) (available here), to address the application of Eighth Amendment limits on juvenile sentences.  The panel opinion runs nearly 50 pages (followed by a 10+ page partial dissent), but these paragraph sets up the context and part of the heart of the opinion (with emphasis in original):

This case presents several difficult challenges for this Court. It calls upon us to decide a novel issue of constitutional law: whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits a term-of-years sentence for the duration of a juvenile homicide offender’s life expectancy (i.e., “de facto LWOP”) when the defendant’s “crimes reflect transient immaturity [and not] . . . irreparable corruption.” Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 734 (2016). Next, if we find that it does, then we must decide what framework will properly effectuate the Supreme Court’s determination that the Eighth Amendment affords nonincorrigible juvenile offenders a right to a meaningful opportunity for release. Furthermore, we must take great pains throughout our discussion to account for the substantive distinction that the Supreme Court has made between incorrigible and non-incorrigible juvenile offenders in order to ensure that the latter is not subjected to “a punishment that the law cannot impose upon [them].” Id. (quoting Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348, 352 (2004)).

Our decision today therefore represents an incremental step in the constitutional discourse over the unique protections that the Eighth Amendment affords to juvenile homicide offenders....

[W]hat is clear is that society accepts the age of retirement as a transitional life stage where an individual permanently leaves the work force after having contributed to society over the course of his or her working life.  See, e.g., Retirement, BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (10th ed. 2014) (“Termination of one’s own employment or career, esp. upon reaching a certain age . . . .”). It is indisputable that retirement is widely acknowledged as an earned inflection point in one’s life, marking the simultaneous end of a career that contributed to society in some capacity and the birth of an opportunity for the retiree to attend to other endeavors in life.

As we stated above, a non-incorrigible juvenile offender is not guaranteed an opportunity to live a meaningful life, and certainly not to a meaningful retirement.  Nevertheless, in order to effectuate the Eighth Amendment’s requirement of meaningful opportunity for release, a juvenile offender that is found to be capable of reform should presumptively be afforded an opportunity for release at some point before the age of retirement.  Cf. Graham, 560 U.S. at 58 (“To determine whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, courts must look beyond historical conceptions to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Estelle, 429 U.S. at 102)).  A sentence that preserves the juvenile offender’s opportunity to contribute productively to society inherently provides him or her with “hope” to “reconcil[e] with society” and achieve “fulfillment outside prison walls.” Id. at 79.  It also accounts for the Court’s trepidation that LWOP sentences deprive non-incorrigible juvenile offenders of vocational training opportunities, which presumably otherwise prepare them to become productive members of society’s working class.  See id. at 74.

Accordingly, lower courts must consider the age of retirement as a sentencing factor, in addition to life expectancy and the § 3553(a) factors, when sentencing juvenile offenders that are found to be capable of reform.  Critically, under all circumstances, lower courts must only consider the uniform national age of retirement.  Otherwise, estimates of retirement ages that account for locality, state, gender, race, wealth or other differentiating characteristics raise similar constitutional concerns to those plagued by reliance on life-expectancy tables alone. Without fixing the age of retirement to a uniform standard, classes of juvenile defendants that retire on average later in life would unreasonably be subjected to longer sentences.  Cf. Mathurin, 868 F.3d at 932 (sentencing juveniles based solely on mortality tables “would unquestionably lead to challenges from defendants from longer-living ethnic groups who would be subject to longer sentences based on that ethnicity”).

Because I am on the road today, I may not be able to review and further comment on this big opinion for some time. But I surmise there is a whole to worth discussing in this opinion, and I hope commentors might share a range of thoughts about it.

April 9, 2018 at 02:03 PM | Permalink


There's some arbitrariness in pretty much any way they deal with state efforts to circumvent the Supreme Court's ruling, but age of retirement might be at least grounded in something beyond a number the courts pick out of a hat. The whole point is to pick a number meaningfully less than life when it comes to a determinate sentence. Of course, if they just had parole eligibility early on, they'd avoid having to make these distinctions, but I get why the court isn't going to want to force that on states.

Posted by: Erik M | Apr 10, 2018 9:41:05 AM

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