Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Ohio Supreme Court explains how Miller is to be applied in discretionary juve LWOP system
The Ohio Supreme Court this morning handed down a lengthy split decision in Ohio v. Long, No. . 2014-Ohio-849 (March 12, 2014) (available here), which explain how the Eighth Amendment rules in Miller, which only formally declare conconstitutional a mandatory juve LWOP sentencing scheme, are to be applied in a system that already gave sentencing judges discretion in cases in which juve killers were made eligible for an LWOP sentence. Here is the start and some additional excerpts from the majority opinion:
In this case, we are asked whether a trial court violates the Eighth Amendment by imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for an aggravated murder committed by a juvenile. We hold that a court, in exercising its discretion under R.C. 2929.03(A), must separately consider the youth of a juvenile offender as a mitigating factor before imposing a sentence of life without parole in light of Miller v. Alabama, ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012)....
As applied to a juvenile found guilty of aggravated murder under R.C. 2929.03(A), then, Ohio’s sentencing scheme does not fall afoul of Miller, because the sentence of life without parole is discretionary. Nor is our criminal procedure flawed under Graham and Miller by failing to take into account that a defendant is a youthful offender. Nevertheless, for clarification we expressly hold that youth is a mitigating factor for a court to consider when sentencing a juvenile. But this does not mean that a juvenile may be sentenced only to the minimum term. The offender’s youth at the time of the offense must still be weighed against any statutory consideration that might make an offense more serious or an offender more likely to recidivate. Yet because a life-without-parole sentence implies that rehabilitation is impossible, when the court selects this most serious sanction, its reasoning for the choice ought to be clear on the record....
Although Miller does not require that specific findings be made on the record, it does mandate that a trial court consider as mitigating the offender’s youth and attendant characteristics before imposing a sentence of life without parole. For juveniles, like Long, a sentence of life without parole is the equivalent of a death penalty. Miller, 132 S.Ct. at 2463, 183 L.Ed.2d 407. As such, it is not to be imposed lightly, for as the juvenile matures into adulthood and may become amenable to rehabilitation, the sentence completely forecloses that possibility...
The United States Supreme Court has indicated in Roper, Graham, and Miller that juveniles who commit criminal offenses are not as culpable for their acts as adults are and are more amenable to reform. We agreed with this sentiment in In re C.P., 131 Ohio St.3d 513, 2012-Ohio-1446, 967 N.E.2d 729. Miller did not go so far as to bar courts from imposing the sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile. Yet because of the severity of that penalty, and because youth and its attendant circumstances are strong mitigating factors, that sentence should rarely be imposed on juveniles. Miller, ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. at 2469, 183 L.Ed.2d 407. In this case, the trial court must consider Long’s youth as mitigating before determining whether aggravating factors outweigh it.
March 12, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Friday, March 07, 2014
Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on Miller retroactivity and application
As effectively reported in this lengty local article, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on whether a teenage murderer given mandatory LWOP over a decade ago can now secure a resentencing because of the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling. Here are the basics:
Rebecca Lee Falcon, now 32, represents a group of more than 200 Florida prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for murders committed while they were under the age of 18.
The issue before the state's highest court is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional — should apply since Falcon and the other prisoners' sentences were final before the nation's highest court ruled.
The immediate matter is whether the ruling in Miller vs. Alabama is retroactive. But it also represents a broader issue at play in the Florida courts and state Legislature as judges and lawmakers struggle with conforming the state's laws with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have determined juveniles need to be treated differently than adults in the justice system....
Karen Gottlieb, a lawyer representing Falcon, argued that the Miller ruling should be retroactive since it represented a change in Florida law of "fundamental significance," when the federal court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and should be uncommon. "Post-conviction relief must be afforded to avoid obvious injustice," Gottlieb said.
Gottlieb noted that unlike adult prisoners who face the death penalty and receive extensive sentencing reviews, where many factors are weighed, the 200 juveniles — with mandatory life sentences after 1994 — received no review. "We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances, their lack of judgment and impetuousness, their maturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences," Gottlieb said. "None of that has been considered."
Trisha Meggs Pate, an appellate lawyer representing the state, argued against retroactivity, saying the federal ruling did not abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder but only rejected mandatory sentencing. "It is not a substantive change in law that forbids the state from imposing a new sentence," Pate said. "It's not a categorical ban against life without parole sentencing. She may go back to the trial court and face the exact same punishment."
Pate also raised the issue of the burden on the state courts if the more than 200 prisoners had to return to court for resentencing hearings. "You're going to have to have witnesses. We're going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners," Pate said. "And some of these cases are 20 years old. They have been final for a long time."...
[Certain] justices seemed troubled by the prospect of letting the Miller ruling apply to cases that were under appeal at the time of the ruling and for future cases but not being applied to the 200 older cases. "So we just turn our backs on the fact that there are 200, even if you say 500, young people who are sitting in jail forever, and we just turn (our) backs on that when the Supreme Court has said clearly that that is not an appropriate sentence if they have not had an opportunity to have their situation looked at individually?" Justice Peggy Quince asked.
The justices seemed to move past the issue of retroactivity and were asking questions of both sides on what procedures Florida should use in sentencing juveniles under the Miller rulings.... The issue has been complicated by the fact that the state abolished parole in 1994, although the system is still used for prisoners who were incarcerated before that time. And the Florida Legislature has been unable to pass a new law taking into account Miller and other court rulings that impact the sentencing of juveniles. Bills are now pending in the 2014 session on those issues.
As noted in this recent post, the Michigan Supreme Court also heard arguments yesterday on Miller retroactivity issues. This coincidence sets up an interesting natural experiment concerning which state supreme court has reach a ruling on this importand and challenging issue first.
Importantly, the Michigan Supreme Court has the benefit of not having to sort completely through how Miller resentencings can and should be done because the Michigan legislature has already enacted a Miller fix statute. In contrast, the failure to date of Florida's legislature to formally respond to Miller essentially forces the Florida Supreme Court to have to make even more hard decisions about how Miller can and should get implemented.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Michigan enacts Miller fix for current and future cases, just as its Justices are to consider past cases
As reported in this local article, headlined "Gov. Rick Snyder signs 'juvenile lifer' update as old cases head to Michigan Supreme Court," the Great Lakes State is busy this week working through all the fall-out from the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller Eighth Amendment ruling. Here are some of the details:
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed legislation updating state sentencing guidelines in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed mandatory life terms without the possibility of parole for minors....
Senate Bill 319, sponsored by state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), changes Michigan law for all pending and future cases involving juvenile defendants convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder or certain repeat sexual assault offenses. Instead of handing down mandatory life sentences in those cases, judges can also consider a term of between 25 and 60 years. Prosecutors may still file a request for a natural life sentence, but judges now have new authority to consider other options....
Michigan is home to some 360 juvenile lifers -- more than all but one other state -- but the new law will not have an immediate impact on most inmates already behind bars. The U.S. Supreme Court, in banning mandatory life sentences for minors, did not indicate whether the ruling should apply retroactively. The new law contains a "trigger" for resentencing hearings in case of a future court ruling.
The Michigan Supreme Court is set to consider the "retroactivity" question on Thursday, when justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in three juvenile lifer cases. Two of the offenders, Raymond Carp and Cortez Davis, have exhausted the traditional appeals process but are seeking resentencing.
The third, Dakotah Eliason, is entitled to resentencing because his case is still on appeal, but his attorneys disputed the limited relief offered by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which told a sentencing judge to consider only two options: life with or without the possibility of parole. Michigan's new law, which also allows for a term of years less than life, makes that particular issue moot. The Eliason case asks the Michigan Supreme Court to consider other issues as well, however, so it's unclear how oral arguments will proceed.
It may be just coincidence that the Michigan legislature got a Miller fix enacted into law just before the Michigan Supreme Court considers retroactive application of Miller to past cases. But I have to think the Michigan Supreme Court might feel (consciously or unconsciously) at least a bit more comfortable concluding that Miller applies retroactively now that the state has a new sentencing scheme for juve murderers on the books.
Michigan media has been covering the Miller application/litigation story quite effectively in the run up to the state's Supreme Court hearing, and here are the headline links to some of the coverage in the last few weeks:
March 5, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
"The Supreme Court and the Rehabilitative Ideal"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Chad Flanders now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Graham v. Florida was a watershed decision, not least because of the centrality of the so-called “rehabilitative ideal” to its holding that life in prison for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes was cruel and unusual. The Court’s emphasis on rehabilitation was surprising both in terms of the Court’s previous decisions on punishment, in which rehabilitation was barely included as a “purpose of punishment,” but also in terms of the history of academic and legislative skepticism if not hostility toward the idea of rehabilitation (which includes two recently decided sentencing cases, Tapia and Pepper). Courts and commentators have struggled to make sense of both the meaning and the scope of Graham’s rehabilitative holding. Their struggle is one about defining how (and whether) rehabilitation should play any substantial role in sentencing.
My essay places Graham in the context of the recent history of rehabilitation, and views its attempt to “rehabilitate” rehabilitation in light of that history. The rehabilitative ideal encompasses not just one model, but three: the mostly discredited model of rehabilitation as treatment, a more modest model of rehabilitation as training, and an older model of rehabilitation as reform. Both the language and the result of Graham show it to be squarely in the tradition of the third model, where rehabilitation is not something the state provides, but something the offender is supposed to undergo, through a process of reflection, remorse, and atonement. Rehabilitation as reform is notable because it is compatible with a suspicion that prison in general is a bad place for rehabilitation and that it is unlikely that the state can do anything to positively aid the offender in reforming. At best, the state must get out of the way. Whether we want to extend Graham or reject it depends on whether we find its ideal of rehabilitation as reform appealing.
February 26, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
"The Illusory Eighth Amendment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by John Stinneford now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Although there is no obvious doctrinal connection between the Supreme Court’s Miranda jurisprudence and its Eighth Amendment excessive punishments jurisprudence, the two are deeply connected at the level of methodology. In both areas, the Supreme Court has been criticized for creating “prophylactic” rules that invalidate government actions because they create a mere risk of constitutional violation. In reality, however, both sets of rules deny constitutional protection to a far greater number of individuals with plausible claims of unconstitutional treatment than they protect.
This dysfunctional combination of over- and underprotection arises from the Supreme Court’s use of implementation rules as a substitute for constitutional interpretation. A growing body of scholarship has shown that constitutional adjudication involves at least two distinct judicial activities: interpretation and implementation. Prophylactic rules are defensible as implementation tools that are necessary to reduce error costs in constitutional adjudication.
This Article contributes to implementation rules theory by showing that constitutional interpretation, defined as a receptive and non-instrumental effort to understand constitutional meaning, normally must precede constitutional implementation. When the Supreme Court constructs implementation rules without first interpreting the Constitution, the rules appear arbitrary and overreaching because they do not have a demonstrable connection to constitutional meaning. Such rules also narrow the scope of the Constitution itself, denying protection to any claimant who does not come within the rules. The only way to remedy this dysfunction and provide meaningful protection across a broad range of cases is to interpret the Constitution before implementing it.
February 11, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, February 09, 2014
Nebraska Supreme Court gives Miller retroactive impact with new statutory law
As reported in this local article, headlined "Nebraska Supreme Court ruling could affect 27 teen murder cases," late last week the Nebraska Supreme Court resolved how the SCOTUS Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller concerning juve LWOP sentences would be applied in the Cornhusker State. Here are the details:
The Nebraska Supreme Court issued precedent-setting decisions Friday that gave hope to 27 prison inmates serving life terms for murders they committed as juveniles. Nebraska's high court ruled that three Omaha men who were convicted when teenagers were unconstitutionally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. While the Supreme Court upheld their murder convictions, it ordered that all three be given new sentences....
The three inmates will return to Douglas County District Court to be resentenced under a law passed last year that allows sentences from 40 years to life. The new law also requires judges to consider factors that could mitigate the youth's responsibility....
Although the Nebraska court ruled largely in favor of the inmates on the constitutional issues, it rejected arguments that sought to remove life as an option during resentencing. Nor was the court in unanimous agreement on all of the issues involving juvenile killers. In a dissent, two of the judges said the U.S. Supreme Court's decision should not apply to inmates who long ago lost their direct appeals....
Nebraska has 27 inmates serving life for homicides committed when they were younger than 18. The oldest is Luigi Grayer, 58, who was 15 in 1970 when he killed an Omaha woman....
Assistant Attorney General James Smith argued that Nebraska's sentencing law didn't violate the Miller ruling because the juveniles were sentenced to life in prison, not life “without parole.” Under Nebraska's system, such inmates would have to get their sentences reduced to a term of years by the Nebraska Board of Pardons before earning parole. Having to first win executive clemency is not the same as parole, the high court ruled, rejecting the state's argument. In other words, a life sentence effectively means life without parole....
The second pivotal question before the court was whether the Miller decision applied to inmates whose convictions had already been upheld on appeal. Because the high court found that the Miller ruling resulted in a “substantive” change to how juvenile killers must be sentenced, it found that the ruling applied retroactively to Mantich. The Nebraska judges quoted from an opinion of the Iowa Supreme Court, which also determined that juvenile killers should get new hearings.
Via How Appealing, here is additional coverage of these rulings and links to the decisions:
The Lincoln Journal Star reports that "Nebraska high court vacates life sentences of 3 men" [and] the Supreme Court of Nebraska three decisions applying the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama [are] here, here, and here.
Wednesday, February 05, 2014
Michigan legislature nearing enactment of Miller fix without retroactivity
As reported in this AP article, headlined "Mich. House OKs Sentencing Rules For Young Killers," a state that has imposed LWOP on a very large number of juvenile murderers is getting close to revising its laws in response to the Supreme Court's constitutional concerns with mandating this punishment. Here are the details:
Young killers could no longer be sentenced to mandatory life without parole under legislation nearing final approval in Michigan, but those now incarcerated for crimes committed under age 18 would stay locked up despite pleas for a second look.
The Republican-controlled state House voted 62-48 Tuesday, mostly along party lines, to approve the new sentencing rules, 19 months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory no-parole sentences for juveniles. The Senate is expected to send the bill to Gov. Rick Snyder; it approved an earlier version in the fall.
The Supreme Court’s June 2012 decision – based on the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment – is silent on retroactivity, and courts across the country have been divided ever since on the issue. It is especially relevant in Michigan, home to around 360 juvenile lifers, the second-highest number in the U.S.
House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Kurt Heise said he wishes the high court had settled the retroactivity question, but lawmakers put guidelines in place in case it does in the future. The bill includes a “trigger” so prisoners now behind bars would be resentenced if the U.S. Supreme Court or Michigan Supreme Court determines the 2012 ruling should apply retroactively....
Juveniles can still be sentenced to life without parole after the high court’s decision. The sentence just cannot be mandatory on judges, who also must consider factors such as defendants’ immaturity, rehabilitation chances, family and home environment, peer pressures and inability as youths to navigate possible plea deals.
If Michigan juveniles charged as adults commit first-degree murder or other serious crimes causing death and do not receive life without parole, judges would have to sentence them to a minimum of at least 25 years and a maximum of at least 60 years under the bill....
It is estimated that 150 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles were accomplices, not the actual killers.
Over objections from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara in November directed the state to give juvenile lifers an opportunity to apply for release or face the appointment of a special master to oversee the process. His ruling was appealed.
Jody Robinson’s brother was killed by a 16-year-old and 20-year-old in Pontiac in 1990, and she later co-founded the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. “This legislation will not only put Michigan laws in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court, but it also gives victims’ families the hope that legal finality is a possibility and the nightmare of repeatedly reliving their loved one’s murder may soon come to an end,” Robinson said in a statement released by Schuette’s office.
Friday, January 24, 2014
Notable early Massachusetts legislative response to elimination of juve LWOP
This Boston Globe article, headlined "Bill seeks at least 35 years for young killers," reports on a proposed statutory response to the recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (discussed here) which declared that that "all life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, whether mandatory or discretionary, violate art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights." Here are the basics:
A group of state lawmakers is proposing legislation that would require juvenile murderers to serve at least 35 years in prison before being eligible for parole, in direct response to a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that struck down life sentences without the possibility of parole for young killers.
The bipartisan bill would also require the state Parole Board, in deciding whether to grant early release, to consider whether a teenager convicted of murder had the maturity and sense of responsibility of an adult when carrying out the crime.
The bill was based on the recommendation last week of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and was meant to fill a legal void left by the Supreme Judicial Court decision in December that eliminated sentences of life without parole for juveniles, even those convicted of the most horrendous crimes. “It’s about the injustice this would mean for the victims’ families,” said state Senator Barry Finegold, a Democrat from Andover and one of the sponsors of the legislation.
Senator minority leader Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester who cosponsored the bill, added that he has spoken with the families of murder victims and “their loss is no less because their suffering was at the hands of a juvenile.”...
According to state officials, approximately 66 prisoners who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles could now be eligible for parole. No hearings have been scheduled.
Joshua Dohan — director of the youth advocacy division for the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency — questioned how the state legislators reached the 35-year mark. Dohan pointed out that international standards, agreeing that teenagers have mindsets that are different from those of adults, call for juvenile sentences of, on average, no more than 20 years in prison, even for murder.
He said legislators are reacting quickly to a sensitive issue, but that they should slow down the process. He called for lawmakers to give judges discretion to hand out punishments, so they could consider a teenager’s culpability in a crime. “These are really important decisions that are going to affect the defendant, but also their families and the families of their victims,” he said....
Tarr and Finegold, flanked by a group of legislators who sponsored the bill, said the 35-year limit is a balance between holding a teenager accountable for his or her crimes and preserving the constitutional issues cited by the courts. Other states, reacting to the US Supreme Court decision, have passed a variety of laws: Wyoming, for instance, offers parole after 25 years.
“While it’s not an ideal situation, we hope this will bring a measure of comfort to the victims’ families,” said Finegold, who said he was working on behalf of Colleen Ritzer, the Danvers High School teacher who was killed in October, allegedly by a student.
A few other recent related posts:
- Extending Graham and Miller, Massachusetts SJC bars LWOP for all juve offenders
- One tale (of thousands) of a juve LWOPer now with a glimmer of hope
- Years after Graham and Miller, Florida still working on its legislative response
- A victim's perspective from Iowa on the aftermath of Graham and Miller
- "Juvenile Lifers and Judicial Overreach: A Curmudgeonly Meditation on Miller v. Alabama"
- "Review for Release: Juvenile Offenders, State Parole Practices, and the Eighth Amendment"
January 24, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
"Review for Release: Juvenile Offenders, State Parole Practices, and the Eighth Amendment"
The title of this post is the title of this informative and interesting new paper by Sarah French Russell now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
State parole boards have historically operated free from constitutional constraints when making decisions about whether to release prisoners. Recent Supreme Court decisions subject states to a new constitutional requirement to provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” for at least some categories of juvenile offenders. Using original data collected through a survey, this Article provides the first comprehensive description of existing parole board release procedures nationwide and explores whether these practices comply with the Court's Eighth Amendment mandate.
The Court's recent decisions in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama prohibit sentences of life without the possibility of release (LWOP) for juvenile offenders in nonhomicide cases and forbid mandatory LWOP sentences in homicide cases. States must now provide nonhomicide juvenile offenders with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” and give judges the option of imposing a sentence with the chance of release on homicide offenders. Around the country, state courts, legislatures, and governors have started to respond to Graham and Miller. Yet there is little scholarship focusing on a central issue raised by these cases: What constitutes a meaningful opportunity to obtain release under the Eighth Amendment? The Court has declined to provide detailed guidance on the matter, stating that “[i]t is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance.”
Viewed in the context of the Court's earlier Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, the meaningful opportunity for release requirement appears to encompass three distinct components: (1) a chance of release at a meaningful point in time, (2) a realistic likelihood of release for the rehabilitated, and (3) a meaningful opportunity to be heard. For the most part, states have responded to Graham and Miller by making juvenile offenders eligible for release under existing and long-standing parole board procedures. To date, the debate in the states has focused primarily on the first component of the meaningful opportunity requirement-when a juvenile offender should be eligible for release. Most states have paid little attention to whether existing parole board practices satisfy the other two components of the meaningful opportunity requirement. These practices, which were designed for a different purpose, may not offer a realistic chance of release and meaningful hearings for juvenile offenders.
Parole procedures in every state are different, and many parole boards operate under unwritten and unpublished rules. To understand existing practices, I sent a survey to every parole board in the country. The survey results revealed procedures that, while adequate for adult offenders, may not survive Eighth Amendment scrutiny when applied to juvenile offenders under Graham and Miller. Such procedures include (1) preventing prisoners from appearing before decision makers, (2) denying prisoners the right to see and rebut evidence, and (3) limiting the role of counsel. I conclude that some states may not be able to rely on their existing parole board practices to provide a meaningful opportunity for release, and may need to craft special rules for considering release of juvenile offenders serving lengthy sentences.
January 21, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Monday, January 20, 2014
One tale (of thousands) of a juve LWOPer now with a glimmer of hope
Former federal judge and law professor Nancy Gertner authored this notable Boston Globe commentary concerning a former client of hers who might now benefit from how Massachusetts courts are responding to the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The piece is headlined "Locking up kids for life? A new court decision takes a step toward juvenile justice reform," and here are excerpts:
Three decades ago, Edward Palmariello, 17, and his 21-year-old friend Bruce Chambers were arrested in the murder of Edward’s mother, Marion. Then a defense attorney, I represented Edward at trial. The jury found both men guilty and the sentence was mandatory — life in prison without any possibility of parole....
The Commonwealth’s story in court was simple: Edward and his mother fought all the time. He had said things to her like “Shut up or I’m going to cut you up and put you into the toilet bowl,” and he once waved an open switchblade at her....
There was another narrative about Edward and his mother, one the jury never heard. The mother had abused Edward’s sisters and brother. The abuses were reflected in Department of Social Services records. In fact, each one had moved out — “escaped,” as one sister put it — as soon as he or she could. Edward, the youngest, had no place to go. His mother abused him physically, but when he grew stronger than she was, her abuse became psychological. Still, as a defense lawyer, I was reluctant to offer the complete DSS records (even if they were admissible). While they explained the family’s dysfunction, there was a risk that a prosecutor, bent on conviction, would spin them as a motive for murder.
With the first-degree murder conviction, there would be no opportunity for testimony from the social workers who knew the family or even the family members themselves who had “escaped.” Only one sentence was possible: life without parole. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Edward’s conviction (one judge dissented). All other appeals failed.
In most countries, Edward’s sentence would have been impossible. Juvenile life without parole is prohibited by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a measure that has been ratified by every UN nation except the United States and Somalia (Somalia announced in November that it will ratify). Edward has spent the past 32 years in jail. He had no hope, no future. Perhaps, until now.
In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court held that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole on any offender under 18 is contrary to the constitutional prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.” While the decision’s implications were momentous, it focused only on the mandatory nature of the punishment.
But on December 24, 2013, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts went further. In Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, the court held that the state constitution barred the imposition of life without parole altogether for defendants under age 18 at the time they committed murder....
In language that resonates for Edward, the US Supreme Court criticized sentencing that “prevents taking into account the family and the home environment that surrounds [the offender] — from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.” It “disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.”
Edwards’s case, along with some 60 others, will now go before the Massachusetts Parole Board. Will this be a real review or just a Kabuki ritual? Governor Deval Patrick dismissed five of the seven board members after a parolee killed a Woburn police officer in 2010. Parole rates have dropped dramatically. Perhaps that was why three SJC justices wrote a special commentary urging a “real meaningful opportunity to obtain release” for the juveniles affected by the decision. Parole Board, take heed.
At the very least, for Edward Palmariello, the board will finally hear the whole story.
Meanwhile, as this new front-page New York Times article highlights, the stories of hope for juve LWOPers in Massachusetts may be more of an exception than the rule in the wake of Miller. That article, which is headlined "Juveniles Facing Lifelong Terms Despite Rulings" spotlights that "most states have taken half measures, at best, to carry out the rulings [in Graham and Miller], which could affect more than 2,000 current inmates and countless more in years to come, according to many youth advocates and legal experts."
January 20, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Saturday, January 04, 2014
"Juvenile Lifers and Judicial Overreach: A Curmudgeonly Meditation on Miller v. Alabama"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available on SSRN and authored by Frank O. Bowman III. Here is the abstract:
This Article considers with a skeptical eye the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), finding unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause all laws subjecting murderers who killed before their eighteenth birthdays to a sentence of mandatory life without parole (“LWOP”).
Miller and Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), in which the Court voided statutes imposing life without parole on juveniles who committed non-homicide crimes, are striking for several reasons. First, they impact juvenile justice because the Court has continued down the path it took in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), when it ruled the death penalty cruel and unusual for juveniles, regardless of the crimes they committed, and declared categorically that the relative immaturity of juveniles made them less culpable for crime and thus both ineligible for certain very harsh punishments and subject to different procedures than adults for others. Second, the Court’s reasoning in Miller and Graham has potentially far-reaching implications for the sentencing of adults. These opinions extend to non-capital crimes the unique body of Eighth Amendment law the Court had hitherto restricted to death penalty cases. And the language of Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion in Miller casts at least some doubt on the power of legislatures to impose any mandatory sentence, whether of death or a term of imprisonment.
This Article contends that, while the results of Miller and Graham are gratifying as sentencing policy, the opinions announcing those results are troubling as a constitutional matter because they are badly theorized and because they are two strands of a web of decisions in which the Court has consistently used doubtful constitutional interpretations to transfer power over criminal justice policy from the legislatures – state and federal – to the courts.
Thursday, January 02, 2014
A victim's perspective from Iowa on the aftermath of Graham and Miller
This notable local article from Iowa, headlined "As juvenile re-sentencing looms, murder victim's family speaks out," provides a useful reminder of the folks other than juvenile offenders who are very concerned with how the Supreme Court's rulings in Graham and Miller are going to be implemented in the states. Here are excerpts:
34 Iowa criminals currently sit in prison cells who, once sentenced to life in prison as juveniles, can file for the possibility of parole. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled sending a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional. Gov. Branstad then commuted those life sentences to 60 years in prison. 2012, however, brought the Iowa Supreme Court to rule 60 years as still unconstitutional.
“Because of the nature of the crimes that these individuals have committed, it has a very serious impact on the criminal justice system,” said Black Hawk County Attorney Tom Ferguson.
The ripple effect of these two court rulings extends past those just sitting in prison cells. Karen Salisbury was murdered in her Evansdale home in 1998. 17-year-old Matthew Payne was charged with the killing; a first-degree murder charge that, back then, sent him to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Salisbury’s three daughters — Rhonda Hoffman, Marsha DeWiese and Vicky Bolin — said they wrestled with those 1998 images of their mother’s death for years. Now — they must relive the nightmare. Payne, along with the other 33 Iowa criminals, can file to correct a now illegal sentence, hoping for parole. “I don't ever want to have to go into the grocery store or somewhere and run into him,” Hoffman said.
Attorneys said parole, however, is not guaranteed. A judge could grant the possibility of parole, or not at all. Nevertheless, these parole hearings are annual; potentially bringing families back to the court room year after year. “Every year if that comes up every year I will be there and I will make sure they hear my voice and they don't let him out,” Bolin said.
The daughters said the possibility of parole for Payne is extremely concerning for them; a thought that is nearly unbearable. “What good are they in this society when they've been in prison for so long and know nothing else,” DeWiese said.
Hoffman said if Payne is ever granted parole, she hopes she never has to see him. “Don’t come back to Waterloo, I’d go somewhere else.”
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Extending Graham and Miller, Massachusetts SJC bars LWOP for all juve offenders
Thanks to this Christmas night post at How Appealing, I just discovered that on Christmas eve the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued two big related rulings (available here and here) which not only held that the Supreme Court's Miller ruling is to be applied retroactively but also that "all life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, whether mandatory or discretionary, violate art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights." Because I am on the road today, I will not have the chance to consume this significant rulings fully, but I can here link to and quote from this lengthy report on the rulings from the Boston Globe:
The state’s highest court struck down life sentences without parole for juveniles on Tuesday, saying scientific research shows that lifelong imprisonment for youths is cruel and unusual because their brains are “not fully developed.”
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision is retroactive, meaning that, as one example, John Odgren, the suburban special needs student who stabbed 15-year-old James F. Alenson in the bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School on Jan. 19, 2007, and received a mandatory life sentence, now could have a chance of parole one day.
“We are very hopeful that the parole board is going to examine these kids’ lives carefully and will be giving them a real meaningful opportunity for release,” said Patty Garin, Odgren’s attorney. But some district attorneys said they were concerned about the ruling and would argue against parole in some cases.
The decision is a marked reversal for Massachusetts, where juveniles found guilty of murder have faced some of the harshest laws in the nation. The decision also is notable for its reliance on the growing field of research into the juvenile brain.
“Simply put, because the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, either structurally or functionally, by the age of eighteen, a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved,” the court wrote. “Therefore, it follows that the judge cannot ascertain, with any reasonable degree of certainty, whether imposition of this most severe punishment is warranted.”...
The ruling goes farther than the Supreme Court decision in 2012 that struck down automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles.... Because the Massachusetts high court’s decision is retroactive, prisoners sentenced as juveniles will “at the appropriate time” be afforded a parole hearing.
Lawyers said such inmates will have to have served at least 15 years before being considered for parole. There are currently 63 inmates in Massachusetts who were sentenced when they were juveniles to life sentences without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder....
The decision drew immediate praise from Governor Deval Patrick, who in September signed legislation that raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 and has pushed to reduce the number of teenagers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. “I applaud today’s Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling,” the governor said in a statement. “Young people, even ones who commit terrible crimes, are developmentally and now constitutionally different from adults. Our SJC has wisely held that, while violent felons will be held accountable, youthful ones deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation.”
Some district attorneys questioned the decision. Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett said the ruling will strip away the closure that victims’ families believed they had gained. “I am concerned for families who thought they had finality about their loved ones being murdered,” said Blodgett, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “Now they have to go through these parole hearings.”
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a statement, “We are mindful of the literature on young adults’ brain development, and we already exercise great discretion in charging juveniles with murder. But we’re also keenly aware of the cases at issue here. Some fact patterns demand life imprisonment. Some defendants do not deserve parole. We will argue — as often and as forcefully as necessary — against parole in those cases.”
For years, Massachusetts has had some of the most punitive penalties in the country for juvenile offenders convicted of murder. Two decades ago a series of brutal murders galvanized public demands for harsher penalties. In 1996, legislators responded with a law that mandated that juveniles 14 years and older charged with murder be tried as adults.
Because Massachusetts’ penalties for first-degree murder is mandatory life without parole juveniles found guilty of that crime faced a lifetime of incarceration. As a result, Massachusetts became a leader in the number of youths facing life sentences without parole.
As of last year, the majority of youth with such sentences were concentrated in Massachusetts and four other states: California, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “People thought if we have an extreme response, kids would stop doing bad things, and that has not turned out to be true,” said Naoka Carey, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts.
Carey said the SJC ruling brings Massachusetts back to the middle — she noted that other states that have abolished life without parole for juveniles include Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas. “We’re in some conservative company,” she said.
State legislative leaders said they plan to move quickly to overhaul juvenile sentencing laws that might conflict with Tuesday’s ruling. “The legislation currently pending that require the eradication of such sentences will be fast-tracked to ensure constitutional compliance with the ruling of the SJC,” said Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who is the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Carey said there are currently a number of legislative options, but that any law will have to give meaningful opportunity for parole.
The SJC’s ruling came in the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 in 1981 when he murdered a man in a car in Kenmore Square. He has been in prison for more than three decades. The court ruled that he was eligible to be considered for parole immediately....
“I’m happy that Gregory Diatchenko is going to have a meaningful opportunity for release, which he deserves. He’s a living embodiment of what the [Supreme Court] case was all about. He does not deserve to die in prison. He’s not who he was when he was 17,” said Benjamin Keehn, Diatchenko’s attorney. Keehn was on his way to see his client at MCI Norfolk on Tuesday to relay the news. He said his client is 49 years old, two credits shy of a bachelors degree, and has been a Buddhist for over 10 years.
The court also ruled in the separate case of Marquise Brown, who was convicted of first-degree murder in a 2009 slaying. He has not been sentenced. The court ruled that because Brown was 17 at the time of his crime, he cannot be sentenced to life without parole.
The Diatchenko ruling was unanimous. In a concurring opinion, Justices Ralph Gants, Barbara Lenk, and Fernande R.V. Duffly, emphasized that defendants need to have a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” They urged that decisions on parole be informed by an attention to the “distinctive attributes of youth.
December 26, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Monday, December 02, 2013
What sentencing issues should SCOTUS be taking up to fill out its docket?
I have noted (and been disappointed by) the relative paucity of major sentencing cases on the Supreme Court docket this Term. But, as highlighted by this new Washington Post article, headlined "Supreme Court busy looking for cases — but finding fewer than usual," SCOTUS is now facing a relative paucity of all cases on its docket.
That all said, this recent Politico article, headlined "Digital era confounds the courts," spotlights that a number of cases concerning the intersection of the Fourth Amendment and new technology likely to be on the SCOTUS docket soon:
[T]he nation’s top court is set to consider whether to take up three key related cases ... [with] big tech issues that could finally get decided:...
Lower courts have been split on the authority of police to search your technology [incident to an arrest]. Currently, court rulings have required warrants to search a cellphone in six states, while they are not required in 20 other states, according to a map put together by Forbes and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.....
In the age of encryption and passwords, law enforcement officials can obtain a warrant for a hard drive, but they may not be able to access the material on it. So can police compel someone to provide a password or to unlock an account or decrypt a file? Courts have in some cases ruled that individuals can refuse to provide a password under their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves....
Another nettlesome issue brought up in part by the ubiquity of cellphones and smartphones is the ability of police to track a person’s movements. While the Supreme Court ruled last year that police cannot affix a GPS tracking device to a car without a warrant, it decided U.S. v. Jones based on a question of trespassing, which doesn’t apply when police get location information from a suspect’s devices or service provider.
The courts are also split on this issue. In July alone, two courts made opposite rulings: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas found that law enforcement may get cell location data from service providers without a warrant. In a New Jersey case, a very different result -- the state supreme court held that the state’s constitution requires a warrant.
Like all criminal procedure issues, these constitutional search question are sure to have eventual sentencing echoes. But, of course, hard-core sentencing issues are the ones that really get me excited, and I think there are plenty the Justices should be taking up to fill out their docket.
Some of the most obvious sentencing issues seemingly ready for SCOTUS review are follow-ups to its recent Eighth Amendment work in Graham and Miller. Lower courts are deeply split over the retroactivity of Miller and also concerning what kinds of crimes and sentences fit within the categorical ban of juve LWOP sentences for nonhomicide offenses announced in Graham.
In addition, plenty of federal sentencing issues in the post-Booker world are still roiling district and circuit courts. I personally would like to see the Justices throw some more dirt on the worst guidelines by taking up, and then reversing as unreasonable, a poorly-justified, within-guideline sentence based on guidelines widely recognized to be badly broken (e.g., the crack or CP or fraud guidelines). But I doubt many Justices are eager to spend their spring further fighting with Justice Breyer over the mysteries of his Booker remedy.
I could go on issue spotting here for the Justices, but I am really eager to hear from informed readers about the question in the title of this post. What issues do folks working day-to-day in the sentencing vineyards believe the Supreme Court should take up ASAP?
December 2, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Years after Graham and Miller, Florida still working on its legislative response
As reported in this local article, Florida is continuing to struggle with how it wants to respond legislatively to the Supreme Court's determination that the state cannot be so quick to give so many juvenile offenders life without parole. Here are the details:
After a stinging defeat last year on the floor of the Senate, Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, has again filed legislation to align Florida’s juvenile-sentencing laws with recent United States Supreme Court rulings.
In 2010, the Supreme Court said it’s unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole, though it allowed exceptions for juveniles convicted of murder. Ever since, lawmakers have failed to pass legislation changing Florida’s juvenile sentencing laws to comply with those opinions. There are 265 inmates in custody of the Department of Corrections that were given life sentences as juveniles.
Additionally, without a tweak to state law, courts across the state have been left to interpret the Supreme Court’s decisions differently. “We owe it to our courts to provide guidance,” Bradley said. “It’s the Legislature’s job.”
During the 2013 legislative session, Bradley, a private attorney, ushered a proposed legislative fix through three committee stops, but halted his own bill on the Senate floor after opponents tacked on an amendment he opposed. Bradley’s bill would have required a judge to consider factors like background and ability for rehabilitation during a mandatory hearing before sentencing a juvenile convicted of murder to life in prison.... Bradley’s bill also capped at 50 years the sentence a judge could give a juvenile who did not commit murder.
The amendment, offered by state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, would have allowed a parole hearing every 25 years for juveniles given life sentences for non-fatal crimes and for those who committed murder. “Why not give that judge the ability to review a case after 25 years?” Garcia asked during April floor debate.
This year, Bradley’s legislation offers parole hearings after 25 years for juveniles convicted of non-fatal crimes, and caps sentences for those offenders at 35 years. It does not offer hearings for juveniles convicted of homicide. “The bill I filed still does not offer hearings to murderers,” Bradley said.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
"Reducing Incarceration for Youthful Offenders with a Developmental Approach to Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Samantha Buckingham now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Current sentencing practices have proven to be an ineffective method of rehabilitating criminal defendants. Such practices are unresponsive to developmental science breakthroughs, fail to promote rehabilitation, and drain society’s limited resources. These deficiencies are most acute when dealing with youthful offenders. Incarcerating youthful offenders, who are amenable to rehabilitative efforts, under current sentencing practices only serves to ensure such individuals will never become productive members of society.
Drawing on the author’s experiences as a public defender, studies in developmental psychology and neuroscience, and the Supreme Court’s recent line of cases that acknowledge youthful offenders’ biological differences from adult offenders, the author proposes a restorative-justice approach to replace current sentencing practices. This solution includes tailoring a youthful offender’s sentence to his or her developmental level and offering a community-based mediation between victims and offenders.
The proposal counteracts a major deficiency of current sentencing practices — the failure to offer youthful offenders an opportunity to truly understand their crimes. Only by providing an opportunity to learn from an offense will a youthful offender be in a position to rehabilitate. This Article responds to possible critiques of the proposal, including concerns about the ability to accurately measure the success of a restorative-justice sentencing model, the fear of implicating the offender’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and the cost of implementing mediation-based efforts. Ultimately, this Article determines that a developmentally appropriate, community-based sentencing scheme — with restorative justice overtones — best addresses the unique situation youthful offenders find themselves in. A sentence for a youthful offender should — indeed, must — present meaningful opportunities for the youthful offender to rehabilitate, and age-appropriate sentences grounded in restorative-justice principles will do this effectively.
November 27, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Friday, November 22, 2013
Two notable Sixth Circuit rejections of notable sentencing appeals by notable defendants
While I was distracted by teaching responsibilities, the Sixth Circuit yesterday handed down two notable (and lengthy) opinions rejecting two distinct defendants' intriguing claims concerning two distinct sentencing outcomes. The first paragraphs of each opinion highlights why both cases are worthy of full reads:
US v. Volkman, No. 12-3212 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2013) (available here):
When a doctor first enters the practice of medicine, he or she swears to abide by a prime directive of the profession: “First, do no harm.” Paul Volkman breached this sacrosanct tenet when he prescribed narcotics to addicts and individuals with physical, mental, and psychological frailties. A federal jury looked at Volkman’s actions and found him guilty of breaking several laws, chief among them the law prohibiting the unlawful distribution of controlled substances. After receiving the jury’s verdict, the district court sentenced Volkman to four consecutive terms of life imprisonment, to be served concurrently with a number of less-lengthy terms.
Volkman now appeals, contending that several errors arose throughout the course of his trial and sentencing. We disagree, and we AFFIRM Volkman’s convictions and sentence.
US v. Marshall, No. 12-3805 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2013) (available here):
Dylan Marshall pled guilty to receiving child pornography over a period of 5 years, from the time he was 15 un til he was 20. The district court varied downward from the guideline range and sentenced him to 5 years in prison — the mandatory minimum sentence for the offense — expressing its concerns with the perceived harshness of that sentence as it did so. Marshall has a rare physiological condition called Human Growth Hormone Deficiency, which he believes entitles him to the Eighth Amendment protections accorded to juveniles. But despite his condition, Marshall was an adult at the time of the offense. We therefore affirm his sentence.
November 22, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 14, 2013
"Misconstruing Graham & Miller"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece by Cara Drinan now up at SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In the last three years the Supreme Court has decreed a sea change in its juvenile Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. In particular, in its Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama rulings, the Court struck down a majority of the states’ juvenile sentencing laws, outlawing life without parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses and mandating individualized sentencing for those children who commit even the most serious crimes. An examination of state laws and sentencing practices, however, suggests that the Graham and Miller rulings have fallen on deaf ears. After briefly describing what these two decisions required of the states, in this Essay, I outline the many ways in which state actors have failed to comply with the Court’s mandate. Finally, I map out a path for future compliance that relies heavily upon the strength and agility of the executive branch.
November 14, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Fourth Circuit rejects effort to use Miller to assail ACCA enhancements based on juve priors
In a not surprising but still noteworthy panel opinion, the Fourth Circuit today in US v. Hunter, No. 12-5035 (4th Cir. Nov. 13, 2013) (available here), rejected a federal defendant's effort to use the Supreme Court's Miller ruling to contest a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence for an adult crime based on prior offenses committed when the defendant was a juvenile. Here is how Hunter begins:
In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), the Supreme Court announced that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” Relying on Miller, Defendant Jimmy Eliab Hunter appeals from his sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm, asserting that the district court erred in sentencing him as an armed career criminal based on violent felonies he committed as a juvenile. But unlike the juveniles in Miller, Defendant’s sentence here punishes him for an offense he committed at the age of thirty-three, well past an age when “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences.” Id. at 2465. Thus, proportionality concerns expressed in Miller regarding youthful offenders are not implicated here. Finding Miller, Defendant’s sole basis for his Eighth Amendment challenge, inapplicable, we affirm.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Can and should brain science research become a regular (and regulated) part of sentencing decision-making?The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new NPR segment (misleadingly?) headlined "The Case Against Brain Scans As Evidence In Court." Here are excerpts from the piece:
It's not just people who go on trial these days. It's their brains.
More and more lawyers are arguing that some defendants deserve special consideration because they have brains that are immature or impaired, says Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University who has been studying the use of brain science in court.
About 5 percent of murder trials now involve some neuroscience, Farahany says. "There's a steady increase of defendants seeking to introduce neuroscience to try to reduce the extent to which they're responsible or the extent to which they're punished for a crime," she says.
Farahany was a featured speaker at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego this week. Also featured were several brain scientists who are uncomfortable with the way courts are using brain research....
The approach has been most successful with cases involving teenagers, Farahany says. "It seems like judges are particularly enamored with the adolescent brain science," she says. "Large pieces of their opinions are dedicated to citing the neuroscientific studies, talking about brain development, and using that as a justification for treating juveniles differently."...
So judges and juries are being swayed by studies showing that adolescent brains don't function the same way adult brains do. One study like that was presented at the neuroscience meeting by Kristina Caudle, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, used a technology called functional MRI to look at how the brains of people from 6 to 29 reacted to a threat.
"The typical response — and what you might think is a logical response — is to become less impulsive, to sort of withdraw, to not act when there is threat in the environment," Caudle says. "But what we saw was that adolescents uniquely seemed to be more likely to act. So their performance on this task became more impulsive." And Caudle found that in adolescents, an area of the brain involved in regulating emotional responses had to work much harder to prevent an impulsive response. This sort of study is great for understanding adolescent brain development in a general way, Caudle says.
"What it doesn't do is allow us to predict, for example, whether one particular teenager might be likely to be impulsive or to commit criminal behavior," she says. And Caudle worries that a study like hers could be used inappropriately in court. "Jurors tend to really take things like MRI scans as fact, and that gives me great pause," she says.
When it comes to nature versus nurture, brain scientists think both matter. A lot of the neuroscience presented in court is simply unnecessary, says Joshua Buckholtz, a psychologist at Harvard. "Anyone who's every had a teenager would be able to tell you that their decision-making capacities are not comparable to adults," he says.
And relying on brain science to defend juveniles could have unexpected consequences, Buckholtz says. For example, he says, if a prosecutor used an MRI scan to show that a 16-year-old who committed a capital crime had a very mature brain, "Would we then insist that we execute that juvenile?"
The task of integrating brain science into the judicial system will in large part be the responsibility of judges, Buckholtz says. And how it works will depend on how well judges understand "what a scientific study is and what it says and what it doesn't say and can't say," he says.
I do not see anything in this piece which suggests that brain scans amount to "junk science," and thus I do not fully understand why NPR thinks this segment reveals a "case against" against brain science as evidence in legal proceedings.
Of course, I fully understand concerns expressed by scientists about the potential misuse or misunderstanding of their nuanced brain scan research. But juries and judges are drawn to scientific research largely because the decision-making alternative is to rely more on gut feelings, emotions, instincts or biases. Unless brain scans provide a worse foundation for making judgments than gut feelings, emotions, instincts or biases, it seems to me they ought to have a role in legal decision-making.
As the question in the title of this post suggests, I think the really tough questions here are not whether brain science is worthy of consideration, but rather when and how brain science should be considered by judges and juries. Indeed, the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment rulings in Roper and Graham and Miller have already given brain science research some constitutional import, and thus I hope both scientists and law professors will now turn their attention to debating how the legal system might most fairly and effectively operationalize what the brain research is telling us about the scientific realities of human behaviors and personal development.
November 12, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack