Monday, November 09, 2009

Chief Justice apparently taking command in the Graham and Sullivan juve LWOP cases

This early report from SCOTUSblog, which is titled "Analysis: The Chief leads on juvenile sentences?," concerning on this morning's arguments in the big juve LWOP cases argued this morning heightens my expectation and hope that we could get some interestingly different line-ups in the decisions in these cases.  Here is the start of Lyle Denniston's analysis:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., made a strong — and repeated — effort on Monday to recruit a majority of the Supreme Court in favor of giving juveniles more chance to use their age to challenge life-without-parole prison terms, as an alternative to a flat constitutional bar against ever imposing that sentence.  With a number of Justices wondering where to draw an age line if the categorical approach were used, the Chief Justice’s initiative seemed to have a good chance of gaining adherents as the Court heard Graham v. Florida (08-7412) and Sullivan v. Florida (08-7621).

Interesting.....!  And more commentary on this front to follow when I get a chance to consume the transcripts in these cases late tonight.

A few older CJ Roberts-related posts and some newer posts on the Graham and Sullivan cases:

November 9, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Watching and wondering about the three SCOTUS newbies in Graham and Sullivan juve LWOP cases

As mentioned in this recent post, I am expecting (or at least hoping) that the big Graham and Sullivan SCOTUS cases to be argued this morning will not simply turn on Justice Kennedy as a swing voter in another 5-4 split.  I make this prediction in part because I am expecting (or at least hoping) that the three most recent additions to the Supreme Court could provide some new perspectives and some unexpected excitement in these cases.

I suspect lots of folks will be watching closely during Graham and Sullivan the newest member of the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor, because these juve LWOP cases are probably the highest profile constitutional criminal cases that SCOTUS will consider this year.  And, while watching Justice Sotomayor, I will be wondering especially about whether she is uniquely attentive to and uniquely concerned about the racial, ethnic and class disparities that often play a role in harsh juve sentencing realities in many states.

But, when I get a chance to read the Graham and Sullivan transcripts, I am going to be especially watching for any "tells" from Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.  In most major death penalty and police practice cases, CJ Robers and Justice Alito have tended to favor broad government power (especially Justice Alito).  But the issues in Graham and Sullivan do not arise in settings in which prior rulings by the Warren and Burger courts have previously curtailed government authority.  Rather, Graham and Sullivan raise hard (and conceptually under-developed) questions about how federal courts are supposed to give meaning and content to the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments" in non-capital settings.  Though CJ Robers and Justice Alito may not bring new jurisprudential perspectives in these cases, I am sure hoping they might.

Of course, SCOTUS watchers surely should keep an eye on the other six Justices in Graham and Sullivan.  The veryyoung age at which Joe Sullivan was given an LWOP sentence might even impact how Justices Scalia and Thomas look at the case, and the repeat and serious nature of Terrence Graham's crimes might impact how Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Stevens sort through these issues.  And, Justice Kennedy could still be a key "swinger" in both Graham and Sullivan despite my speculation and hope that these cases do not fully turn on his constitutional instincts.  Indeed, Justice Kennedy may be the most interesting to watch because he authored the two most pertinent precedents in Roper and Harmelin.

I could go on and on and on about these cases because they implicate are sooooo many interesting matters of constitutional jurisprudence and sentencing policy.  (For example, I could do a number of posts simply concerning the decision by Obama's Justice Department to sit on the sidelines for this critically important issue).  But, upon completing this post, I think I am going to await having the chance to read the argument transcripts before saying more about Graham and Sullivan.

A few different older and newer posts on issues related to the Graham and Sullivan cases:

November 9, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Previewing tomorrow's big SCOTUS arguments in Graham and Sullivan juve LWOP cases

How Appealing has collected here lots of links to pieces discussing in the big Graham and Sullivan cases to be argued Monday, November 9 in the Supreme Court.  For all the essential case basics in a well presented form, I recommend Lyle Denniston's preview in this SCOTUSblog post titled "Inquiring into the juvenile mind," and Adam Liptak's preview in this New York Times article headlined "Justices Weigh Life in Prison for Youths Who Never Killed."  And, as detailed below, I have done a series of posts on these very important Eighth Amendment cases since cert was first granted earlier this year.

I have a lot of new thoughts about these cases and tomorrow's arguments, some of which I hope to share in future posts.  For now though, let me make one early prediction (which I reserve the right to change after argument): neither Graham or Sullivan will be resolved through 5-4 rulings.

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

UPDATE:  Howard Bashman here has another collections of press stories about the Graham and Sullivan cases.  Readers get bonus points and my gratitude for spotlighting any special or noteworthy details in all this media coverage of these important SCOTUS cases.

November 8, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"All Locked Up: Did Joe Sullivan, sentenced to life at 13, have a fair trial?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece at Slate.  Here is how the piece gets started:

Next week the Supreme Court will hear arguments, in Sullivan v. Florida, about whether sentencing a 13-year-old boy to prison without the possibility of parole violates the cruel-and–unusual-punishment clause of the Constitution. Joe Harris Sullivan is one of two teenagers that young currently doing life without parole for a nonhomicide offense in the United States. His lawyers are hoping that the court will extend its 2005 bar on executing criminals who committed crimes as juveniles to Sullivan's sentence.

Whatever the court decides, its ruling will be based on the premise that Sullivan received a fair trial.  The adequacy of that proceeding isn't before the justices now.  But a brief review of the trial record reveals a process so pathetic that it raises questions about whether Sullivan committed the crime in the first place.  It also seems that the trial judge may not have intended to sentence Sullivan to life without parole.  In the end, that judge, along with the prosecutor and defense lawyer, failed Sullivan so deeply that we have to wonder whether his sentence reflects a deep and basic failure of ordinary criminal justice.

November 4, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Noting the juve LWOP cases before SCOTUS across the pond

Thanks to How Appealing, I saw this new piece in The Times of London about the Graham and Sullivan cases to be heard by the Supreme Court nxt week. Here are snippets:

The Supreme Court’s rare decision to consider separate cases on the same issue reflects a slow and, many believe, long overdue reassessment of the uniquely American judicial policy of locking up teenagers and throwing away the key.

Joe Harris Sullivan was 13 when a Pensacola judge sentenced him to life without parole for raping a 72-year-old woman. The judge described Sullivan as “beyond help” and declared that he would “send him away for as long as I can”. He has already spent 20 years in jail.

Terrance Graham was 16 when he was arrested for armed burglary while on probation for a previous robbery.

At the time Florida was cracking down on repeat offenders and in 2005 a different judge declared Graham “incorrigible” and imposed the maximum sentence. More than 100 cases have been under the microscope since the Supreme Court ruled, after bitter internal debate in 2005, that juveniles should not be executed for murder.

Numerous legal and medical associations are supporting Sullivan and Graham on the grounds that the courts should not judge teenagers in the same way as they judge adults, just as governments recognise the difference by placing certain restrictions on juvenile drinking, voting and marrying....

The Supreme Court may decide that 13 is too young for a maximum sentence, but that 17 is not. For Sullivan and Graham, the ruling will in effect decide whether they die in jail.

November 1, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, 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 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Infamous "Lipstick Killer" case provides historical perspective on juve sentencing debate

I noticed this interesting recent piece on CNN headlined "'Lipstick Killer' behind bars since 1946."  The article is fascinating for various reasons, and here are a few highlights:

William Heirens, the "Lipstick Killer," is believed to be the longest-serving inmate in the United States. He turns 81 on November 15.  Diabetes has ravaged his body, but his mind is sharp.

"Bill's never allowed himself to be institutionalized," said Dolores Kennedy, his long-time friend and advocate. "He's kept himself focused on the positives." The days are spent mostly watching television and reading magazines.  Using a wheelchair and sharing a cell with a roommate in the health unit of Dixon Correctional Center, he still yearns for a chance at freedom.  It is something he has not tasted since 1946.

Heirens has been locked behind bars and walls for 63 years, making inmate C06103 the longest-serving prisoner in Illinois history, state officials say.  According to Steven Drizin, the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, Heirens "has served longer than anyone in the U.S. that I can find."

He was put away a year after the end of World War II. It is a dubious record, but fitting for the man dubbed the Lipstick Killer, whose crime spree remains among the most infamous in the history of Chicago...  "Pray for my release," he wrote in a letter dated October 11. "There is no reason to keep this man behind bars," said Drizin. "He meets all the criteria for parole."

While Drizin, who has represented Heirens since 2001, and others passionately plead for his release and prepare to re-petition the state parole board that has consistently refused to free Heirens, others are convinced he is a manipulative murderer.  "He was the bogeyman," said Betty Finn of the man convicted of strangling her sister.  "I don't think you need to feel sorry for him. He chose his life and he chose his actions."...

He pleaded guilty to three counts of murder.  In exchange for the plea, Heirens was spared the death penalty and given three consecutive life sentences.

Heirens has distinguished himself in prison.  He was the first inmate in Illinois to receive a college degree . "He helped redesign the library system in the department of corrections," said Drizin, who also commended Heirens for becoming a "first-rate jailhouse lawyer."   Drizin said Heirens has been eligible for parole nearly every year since the 1970s. 

There are so many notable elements to this interesting story, ranging from claims that Heirens was tortured into a confession back in 1946 to the fact that he was able to avoid the death penalty by virtue of pleading guilty.  It is also interesting and notable that Heirens was only 17 at the time of his crimes; the Supreme Court's consideration of Eighth Amendment standards for juve sentencing in the upcoming Graham and Sullivan cases could arguably have some relevance to the "Lipstick Killer."  Then again, the issue in Graham and Sullivan concerns sentences of life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes, whereas the "Lipstick Killer" is serving three life sentences with the possibility of parole for homicides.

October 27, 2009 in Celebrity sentencings, Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, October 26, 2009

"The Case Against Juvenile Life Without Parole: Good Policy and Good Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new Findlaw commentary by Kristin Henning, who is Co-Director of Juvenile Justice Clinic and Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.   As the piece's title suggests, the author has a clear view of how the Graham and Sullivan juve LWOP cases ought to be resolved by the Supreme Court.  Here are snippets from the commentary:

In Sullivan and Graham, the Court is not considering whether juvenile offenders should be punished — or punished severely — for their crimes.  The Court is considering the narrow question of whether juvenile offenders should be afforded meaningful opportunities for parole.

Youth offenders, like all offenders, should be held accountable for their crimes — even by life imprisonment. Regardless of the Court's decisions in Sullivan and Graham, the very worst juvenile offenders still may spend the rest of their lives in prison. An opportunity for parole is just that: a chance for a prisoner to show strong evidence of rehabilitation.  If a juvenile offender does not demonstrate change and is deemed a threat to public safety, the parole board will not grant parole.  Victims' rights have long been protected through the parole hearing process, with victims retaining a right to participate and be heard before any decision on parole is granted....

When a child is robbed of the chance to reform, our country is robbed as well.  The overwhelming majority of juvenile offenders can and do become thriving, productive citizens.  This is not an unattainable ideal — it is an irrefutable truth, supported by the research of acclaimed scientists and the stories of inspiring youths like Kareem Watts.

This fall, the Supreme Court has the chance to follow the law — and ensure that Joe Sullivan's and Terrance Graham's path becomes the road not taken for other juvenile offenders.

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

October 26, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 22, 2009

ABAJ coverage of SCOTUS cases on constitutionality of juve LWOP

In the November 2009 issue of ABA Journal magazine includes this article previewing the two juve LWOP cases to be heard by the Supreme Court next month.  The piece is headlined, "Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Is life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles?", and here are excerpts:

In a pair of cases from Florida, Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, the court must determine whether Roper’s reasoning — that juvenile defendants are fundamentally different from adult defendants — extends from the death penalty to life without parole.  Arguments are scheduled for Nov. 9.

“Life without parole can be considered as death in prison and the penultimate sanction,” says Florida State University law professor Wayne A. Logan, who has written on juvenile life without parole.  “The court granting cert in two cases signals its concern about ju­venile justice, which is a welcome development.  Life without parole has become a live issue in the wake of the Roper case.”...

Numerous amicus briefs have been filed on behalf of Sullivan and Graham seeking to persuade the court to extinguish LWOP sentences for juveniles.  One of the more compelling comes from a group of former juvenile offenders who later achieved success, including actor Charles S. Dutton and former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson.  Dutton stabbed a person to death in a street fight at age 17, while Simpson committed arson on federal property, punched a cop and — in his own words — “was a monster.”

“We tried to present the views of several individuals who had been involved in criminal offenses when they were juveniles — some of whom may have been eligible for LWOP under particular state laws — and to explain what that kind of severe sentence would have meant for them,” says Washington, D.C.-based attorney David W. DeBruin, who filed the brief.  “The individuals described in our brief had hope because they had the prospect of release. Knowing that they had a chance, they used the time in prison to resolve to do things differently and to obtain skills — and eventually they made outstanding contributions to society.”...

Roper was wrongly decided, but it is manageable if contained on the death penalty side of the firebreak,” says Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, the Sacramento, Calif., group that supports crime victims.  But, he adds, Roper “should not be extended at all.  These are sentencing policy decisions to be made by the people of the several states through the democratic process.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision, it is the people’s to make.  Nothing in the Constitution assigns that decision to the federal judiciary.”

But experts agree on the importance of the cases.  “There is a tremendous amount at stake in these cases when you consider that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is almost equivalent to a death sentence and gives the offender no chance of relief or release or hope,” DeBruin says.

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

October 22, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughtful reflections on juve LWOP from Minnesota

As noted in this post, last week the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected constitutional arguments against an LWOP sentence for 17-year-old murderer.  That ruling has prompted this thoughtful commentary, headlined "The kids are not alright: Minnesota minors who kill can go to jail for life with no chance of getting out." Here are snippets:

Last Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Martin’s sentence, saying it was not a violation of the federal or state constitution. Minnesota’s decision comes at a critical time for judicial consideration of juvenile sentences. On Nov. 9, the United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on whether sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicidal crimes is unconstitutional. To oversimplify things, the decision faced by the courts is whether life sentences meted out to offending minors violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans “cruel and unusual punishments.” Minnesota’s state constitution, which was also considered in Martin’s case, however, bans “cruel or unusual punishment.”

Before jumping to any conclusions, consider how important some of the issues involved are. These kids have been convicted of committing horrible crimes. You don’t get life without parole for vandalizing the neighbor’s garage....

I was talking about these cases with my friend and classmate Rob Crist, who I think summed things up perfectly with a question: “What do you do with a kid like that?” For some states, the solution is to lock the kids up for the rest of their lives. “The juvenile system has been utterly incapable of doing anything with Mr. Sullivan, even though Sullivan had been given opportunity after opportunity to upright himself and take advantage of the second and third chances he’s been given,” the prosecution’s brief states, quoting the trial judge.

Yet, despite the horror of the acts themselves, many argue that the kids deserve a second chance on account of their age. Sullivan’s defense team’s brief before the Supreme Court lists all the sociopsychological reasons against harsh sentences for children....

Any time a juvenile commits a violent crime, it’s already a tragedy. I can’t help but think that a child like Joseph Sullivan doesn’t do what he did unless a long line of adults — people like his teachers, parents or others in his surrounding community — had failed to teach him responsibility all along.

Somehow, the world has gotten to the point where kids are killers and rapists long before they can graduate from high school. As horrible as this is, I’m skeptical that the best way to deal with our youngest criminal offenders is to lock them up and throw away the key.

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

October 15, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Minnesota Supreme Court rejects constitutional arguments against LWOP sentence for 17-year-old murderer

A helpful reader forwarded to me today's Minnesota Supreme Court decision in State v. Martin, No. A07-1262 (Minn. Oct. 8, 2009) (available here).  The official syllabus in the Martin case describes one of its holdings in this way: "The punishment of life in prison without the possibility of release for a juvenile who was 17 years of age when he committed the offense was not cruel or unusual punishment in violation of the United States or Minnesota Constitutions." 

The body of the opinion details that the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1999 upheld a juve LWOP sentence against a constitutional challenge, and it also notes that the defendant in this case "was only six weeks from his eighteenth birthday when he shot" and killed a rival gang member.  After reviewing the constitutional arguments made by the defendant, the Minnesota Supreme Court concludes that "Martin has failed to carry his heavy burden of demonstrating a compelling reason to overturn [our prior ruling].  Nor did Martin make any showing that this punishment was disproportionate as applied to him. We hold that the punishment ... is not unconstitutional as applied to Martin."

October 8, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, October 05, 2009

SCOTUS opening day discussion of juve LWOP cases

Though they are not scheduled to be argued until next month, the official start of the new Supreme Court Term today prompts some additional major media attention and commentary about Graham and Sullivan, the two juve LWOP cases on the docket.  The Wall Street Journal has this new piece, headlined "Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?", which rightly notes that Justice Kennedy is likely again to be a key vote in this cases:

Since the 1970s, the court has been narrowing the scope of the death penalty to those people considered most reprehensible.  When it comes to prison terms, however, the court rarely has intervened.  Justice Anthony Kennedy often has cast the deciding vote, siding with liberal justices to limit the death penalty, but joining conservatives to uphold severe prison terms.

The court ordered separate arguments in the Sullivan and Graham cases, suggesting it could be inclined to distinguish the two based on their ages.  "The difference between 13 and 16 matters," says Frank Colucci, a professor at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, Ind., and author of "Justice Kennedy's Jurisprudence," published in September.  Prof. Colucci predicted Justice Kennedy will write an opinion in this case that will stress "the capacity of juveniles to be morally responsible for their crimes."

The Los Angeles Times has this commentaryby lawprof Bernard Harcourt, which is headlined "Sending children to prison for life: Our laws make allowances for juveniles' immaturity; judges should too." Here is a snippet:

The tough-on-crime rhetoric of "lock 'em up and throw away the key" is entirely inappropriate in the case of children. Children's brains, bodies and personalities are still in the process of growing and changing.  And many experts in neuroscience and psychology believe that the same changeability that makes young people vulnerable to negative influences and peer pressure also makes them good candidates for reform and rehabilitation.

In all other areas, we recognize their vulnerabilities.  Because of the relative immaturity and irresponsibility of minors, every state in the nation restricts them from voting, serving on juries, purchasing alcohol or marrying without parental consent.  States further restrict young adolescents from activities that require more mature judgment, such as driving and consenting to sexual activity. In fact, the state of Florida, where Sullivan and Graham are incarcerated for life, does not even permit adolescents to get their ears pierced without parental consent.

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

October 5, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Should religious doctrines influence Eighth Amendment jurisprudence?

Thanks to this post by Orin Kerr, I took a closer look at this amicus brief filed in the SCOTUS  juve LWOP cases on behalf many religious organizations.  As Orin notes, the "substance of the brief is provocative [as] it argues that religion should inform 8th Amendment jurisprudence."  Specifically, consider these passages from the amici brief (with quotes and cites left out):

The importance of a society’s religious organizations’ views on issues of morality, crime, and punishment to that society’s standards of decency is well recognized.  Indeed, for the vast majority of mankind, crime, punishment, and reform are still inextricably bound up with religious views about sin, judgment, and forgiveness.  There are few, if any, institutions that can claim a greater tradition of working with and studying the conscience of the human person and related questions of guilt, blame, and suffering than those of the religious community....

Amici, as members of the religious community, are uniquely positioned to provide invaluable guidance regarding the issue presented in these cases: whether sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses is contrary to contemporary standards of decency and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.  Their religious traditions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism — have played influential roles in societal discourses about morality and criminal punishment throughout history, and continue to do so today.  An overwhelming majority of Americans continue to rely on the teachings and instructions of these faith traditions on matters of morality and justice.

I am curious to hear reader reactions to the suggestion that religious traditions and teaching might have a special role to play in Eighth Amendment cases.

October 1, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New report on juve LWOP in Massachusetts

One of the many reasons I am always eager for the Supreme Court to take up more (non-capital) sentencing cases is because simply the decision to grant cert will often inspire public policy groups and the general public to notice and debate important (non-capital) criminal justice issues that are too often overlooked.  This reality in on full display in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to examine juvenile LWOP sentences in Graham and Sullivan: I have noticed a huge uptick in the number of  studies and press reports on life sentences for juveniles in recent months. 

The latest example comes from Massachusetts, as detailed in this Boston Globe article and this press release from the Children Law Center of Massachusetts.  Here is the start of the Globe article:

Despite its liberal reputation, Massachusetts has one of the harshest laws in the country for sentencing murderers as young as 14 to life in prison without parole, and many of the 57 people serving such mandatory sentences are first-time offenders, according to an advocacy group that wants them to become eligible for parole.

The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, in what it said was the first comprehensive study of the 1996 law that resulted in such sentences for first-degree murder, found that a disproportionate percentage of the children locked up for the rest of their lives are black. Many of the offenders were convicted with adult codefendants, some of whom got milder sentences and have been freed.

The report [which is available at this link] followed a two-year review of most of the cases in which children ages 14, 15, and 16 were tried in adult court and sentenced to life. The study says that penalties for juvenile murderers were inadequate in the 1980s but that the Legislature went too far when it passed the current law in response to what the center describes as overblown fears of young super predators.

The group wants Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature to change the law to at least make juveniles convicted of first-degree murder eligible for parole after 15 years, as is true for people convicted of second-degree murder. “Life-without-parole sentences may be an appropriate response to some adult crimes, especially in a state like Massachusetts that does not impose the death penalty,’’ the 33-page report said. “But the current law treats youths as young as 14 exactly like adults, regardless of their age, past conduct, level of participation in the crime, personal background, and potential for rehabilitation.’’

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

September 30, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, 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 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, September 14, 2009

UK gives life with parole for terrorists convicted of airline bomb plot

This new CNN article, which reports on three high-profile terror defendants getting sentenced in London, provides an interesting point of comparison concerning life sentences in the US and other parts of the world.  First, here are the basics:

Three men convicted of plotting to bomb planes flying from London to North America with liquid explosives hidden in soft drink bottles were ordered imprisoned for life, a judge announced Monday.

The men were arrested in August 2006 on suspicion of plotting to blow up planes with liquid explosives hidden in soft-drink bottles. The plot led to immediate restrictions on liquids that passengers are allowed to carry onboard aircraft, resulting in today's rules that allow only small amounts to be carried in resealable clear plastic bags.

The judge, Justice Richard Henriques, called the plot "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven within this jurisdiction." "The plot would have succeeded but for intervention of police and security services," he said, rejecting a defense argument that the men would have failed to get the chemistry right and actually blow up planes.

The ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, must serve at least 40 years before he is eligible for parole, the judge said. He is "likely to remain a serious danger to the public for a long time," the judge, Justice Henriques, said. "You are a driven and determined extremist with boundless energy."...

A second plotter, Assad Sarwar, 29, must serve a minimum of 36 years before he is eligible for parole. Henriques gave him a lesser sentence on the grounds that he was not the ringleader of the plot and not involved in recruiting other people for it.  The third man convicted of the plot, Tanvir Hussain, 28, must serve at least 32 years, the judge said, calling him "no mere footsoldier."...

British prosecutors called the plot "calculated and sophisticated" and said it could have killed hundreds or even thousands of people.

So, let's review the stories of life sentencing in the UK and the US in light of this case another set of high-profile cases:

In the UK today, a "driven and determined extremist with boundless energy," who was the ring-leader of "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven," which could have killed thousands of people, is sentence to life with parole eligibility.   

Meanwhile, in the US in two months, the Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of Florida's decision to send two juvenile defendants, one of who was involve in a rape at age 13, the other committed armed robberies at 16 and 17, to life without parole eligibility.   

Putting these stories together raises an important and controversial constitutional question: should the fact that even the most extreme terrorists do not get LWOP sentences in other parts of the world have any bearing on whether juve LWOP sentences for non-homicide crimes in the US constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?

September 14, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Heritage Foundation report defending juve LWOP sentences

I just learned of a timely new report released this past week by The Heritage Foundation on the topic of life sentences for certain juvenile offenders. The report, which is available at this link, is titled "Adult Times for Adult Crimes: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens," and is authored by Charles Stimson and Andrew Grossman.  As its title suggests, this lengthy report reads like an amicus brief in support of states seeking to defend the use of LWOP for juve offenders in the upcoming SCOTUS cases Graham and Sullivan.

The report has an executive summary that starts this way:

Life without parole for the very worst juvenile offenders is reasonable, constitutional, and (appropriately) rare.  In response to the Western world’s worst juvenile crime problem, U.S. legislators have enacted commonsense measures to protect their citizens and hold these dangerous criminals accountable. Forty-three states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have set the maximum punishment for juvenile offenders at life without the possibility of parole.  By the numbers, support for its use is overwhelming.

Nonetheless, its continued viability is at risk from misleading lobbying efforts in many states and court cases that seek to substitute international law for legislative judgments and constitutional text.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons decision, which relied on the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishments” language to prohibit capital sentences for juveniles, anti-incarceration activists have set about extending the result of Roper to life without parole.  If they succeed, an important tool of criminal punishment will be eliminated, and all criminal sentences could be subjected to second-guessing by judges, just as they are in capital punishment cases today.

The most visible aspects of this campaign are a number of self-published reports and “studies” featuring photographs of young children and litigation attacking the constitutionality of life without parole for juvenile offenders — including two cases that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear in its 2009 term.

Because the activists have monopolized the debate over life without parole, legislatures, courts, the media, and the public have been misled on crucial points.  For example, dozens of newspaper articles, television reports, and court briefs have echoed the activists’ assertion that 2,225 juvenile offenders are serving LWOP sentences in the United States, despite that this figure is nothing more than a manufactured statistic.  This report is an effort to set the record straight. It provides reliable facts and analysis, as well as detailed case studies, with full citations to primary sources.

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

August 23, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Detailing the extreme toughness of juvenile justice in Florida

The constitutionality of the extreme toughness of juvenile justice in two paricular Florida cases will be before the Supreme Court in the Graham and Sullivan cases to be argued in the fall.  In the meantime, this front-page article from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which is headlined "Florida justice: Tough on youths," provides more details on just how tough the Sunshine State is on young offenders.  Here are snippets from the piece:

Records show that Florida has handed out more life sentences to juveniles for non-murder crimes than have all other states combined.  Florida's sentencing raises questions about cruelty as well as concerns about racial bias.  While blacks represent about 16 percent of Florida's population, and about half its prison population, 84 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses were African-American.

Florida has sentenced 77 young men to spend their lives in prison, without any chance of release, based on non-homicide crimes they committed when they were 17 years old or younger, according to a preliminary study by Florida State University researchers.  Six of those prisoners were 13 or 14 at the time of their crimes. 

A Herald-Tribune review of state records shows that some juveniles were given life without parole for as few as one or two convictions of non-homicide crimes.  Florida's stance has generated protests from human rights groups and a lawsuit heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, which contends such sentences violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But the state shows little sign of stopping judges from imposing life sentences on juveniles or providing a path to freedom for those already in prison. Lawmakers rejected a bill last spring that would have allowed juveniles in some non-homicide cases to eventually become eligible for parole.

The controversy in Florida stands out because it differs so greatly from policies elsewhere. Florida prisoners represent 69 percent of the 111 inmates reported nationally to be serving life without parole for their non-homicide juvenile crimes. Thirty-six states have no non-homicide juvenile lifers.

August 9, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Some of the amici briefs in support of the defendants in Graham and Sullivan

I am still working through the top-side merits briefs in Graham and Sullivan (discussed here), which are the two SCOTUS juve LWOP cases that present fascinating Eighth Amendment question.  I hope to be able to find time in the weeks ahead to blog about what these merits briefs argue (and what they do not argue).  

In the meantime, folks ahead of me on their juve LWOP reading can and should start checking out the 14 amicus briefs filed on behalf of the defendants that the SCOTUSwiki folks have posted here and here.  Though I hope to eventually blog about what some of these amici argue, I hope readers might get a running start by noting any especially interesting or unexpected argument to be found in these friendly briefs.

It seems as though the Obama Administration's Department of Justice did not file a brief on behalf of the defendants in these cases.  I perhaps can understand the political calculus leading to that reality, but it is another disappointing example of the disinclination of Obama's DOJ to spend any political capital in order to advocate on behalf of even juvenile criminal defendants.

Some other posts on the Graham and Sullivan cases:

July 28, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Top-side briefs in Graham and Sullivan, the two SCOTUS juve LWOP cases

Thanks to the folks at the ABA who collect Supreme Court briefs here, we can all now read the top-side merits briefs filed late last week in the two juve LWOP cases, Graham and Sullivan, to be heard next term by Supreme Court (basics here and here).  As I have explained in prior posts (some of which are linked below), I think Graham and Sullivan are the most important Eighth Amendment cases to be heard by the Supreme Court in a long time (and they are also among the most interesting constitutional cases on the current SCOTUS docket). 

The top-side merits brief in Graham can be access at this link.  The top-side merits brief in Sullivan can be accessed at this link.  Both are very lengthy because of long appendices.

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

July 21, 2009 in Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack