Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Questioning forceful (but suspect) claims by the varied Miller dissents: the Roberts/textualism numbers

Though I still have tons of questions about what the new Eighth Amendment SCOTUS Miller ruling will come to mean (opinion here, basic questions here and here and here), I now have some first thoughts on the three intriguing Miller dissents.  Though covering some overlapping grounds (and overlapping votes), I think it is fair to short-hand these dissents using their authors and main themes: (1) the Roberts/textualism dissent, (2) the Thomas/originalism dissent, and (3) the Alito/legislative judgment dissent. 

Notably, the relatively short Miller majority opinion (perhaps wisely) does not very deeply engage with all the points made in the dissenting opinions, but there is a lot of interest and force in these dissents.  However, though seemingly forceful in various ways, I see a suspect judgment or assertion or conclusion at the heart of each dissent.  In a series of three posts, I hope to explain briefly the suspect foundation in each of these dissents.  I will start here by questioning number-crunching in the Roberts/textualism dissent in Miller.

Chief Justice Roberts' lead Miller dissent, which was signed by all the dissenters, rests on a forceful textual point set forth in these two sentences at the end of first paragraph: "The pertinent law here is the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits 'cruel and unusual punishments.'  Today, the Court invokes that Amendment to ban a punishment that the Court does not itself characterize as unusual, and that could not plausibly be described as such."  Though I see much force and wisdom in the Chief's concern for the term "unusual" in any interpretion of the Eighth Amendment, I think a careful and sober assessment of the data makes it quite "plausible" to characterize the sentences at issue in Miller as unusual.

First, if we focus just on Kuntrell Jackson's case before SCOTUS, it seems quite "unusual" for a teenage accomplice to a felony with no clear intent to kill and no significant criminal history to be subject to a mandatory LWOP sentence.  Though data here can be slippery, there are probably hundreds (if not thousands) of teens each year who are accomplices to felonies in which someone is killed and I suspect very few of these teenage felony-murder accomplices in any given year get a mandatory LWOP.  (Many of the teen accomplices without a criminal history, I would bet, are not even arrested or charged with murder, let alone brought into the adult system and subject to a mandatory LWOP sentence.) 

There has been, roughly speaking, about 40 years of modern LWOP sentencing, which in turn has resulted in a total of about 2500 juve killers with LWOP sentences (of which about 2000 were imposed manditorily).  I would be surprised if more than 20 of these juve LWOPers are just teenage felony-murder accomplices without a significant criminal history like Kuntrell Jackson.  Because one could (very conservatively) guess that there have been 20,000 teenage felony-murder accomplices over the last four decades, Kuntrell Jackson's sentence is fairly considered a 1 in 1000 event.  It seems quite appropriate (and surely "plausible") to describe such a rare event as "unusual." 

Of course, ever the careful and effectively dissenter, the Chief Justice does not really take on whether Kuntrell Jackson's sentence is "unusual" (and his Graham concurrence leads me to think he might have been inclined to join a very narrow opinion that just struck down Jackson's mandatory sentence, perhaps with emphasis on mens rea points stressed in Justice Breyer's concurrence).  Rather, the heart of the Chief's dissent is his complaint is that the majority in Miller has used the Eighth Amendment to "ban a punishment" (i.e., mandatory LWOP for any and all teen killers) that is not "unusual."  But, even with this wider framing, I am not sure the numbers concerning the frequency of mandatory LWOP are as compelling as the Chief suggests.

Again, as to the frequency of the sentence, we have gone 40 years to get roughly 2000 mandatory juve LWOP sentences imposed, meaning we average over this period roughly 50 such sentences per year.  In footnote 1 of his dissent, the Chief notes than DOJ statistics indicate that 1,170 juves were arrested for serious homicide in 2009.  Taking just these numbers on their face, one could assert that a juve killer getting a mandatory LWOP sentence is roughly a 1 in 23 event.  I think it is possible (and surely "plausible") to describe a 1 in 23 event as "unusual," though surely reasonable minds could differ on this front.  (To use a sports metaphor, I think it would be reasonable to say it is "unusual" when the New York Mets win the World Series, even though they have done so twice in the last 45 years.)

Moreover, and perhaps more important, the Chief has fudged the numbers here a bit when referencing the 1,170 juves arrested for serious homicide in 2009, because juve homicides are way down compared to just a decade ago.  Once again, data here can be slippery, but I think it is fair to say there were on average much closer to 2000 juve homicides per year over the last 40 years.  Using 2000 as the denominator, the odds of a juve killer getting a mandatory LWOP is now a 1 in 40 event.  Something that happens only 2.5% of the time seems to me to be "unusual."

This all said, the Chief Justice is certainly on solid ground that a mandatory LWOP sentence for a juve killer is not as unusual as the juve LWOP nonhomicide sentences at issue in Graham.  But, critically, the text of the Eighth Amendment does not demand that a punishment be "very unusual" to be unconstitutional, it only demands that a punishment be "unusual."  Further still, I do not think this number crunching holds the secret to unlocking an idealized modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  But, as will be my goal in all my posts in this series on the Miller dissents, I just want to flag the reality that a key forceful claim in this lead dissent can be viewed as suspect when fully unpacked.

June 26, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Monday, June 25, 2012

Basic mandatory juve LWOP head-count in light of Miller

This article by Warren Richey for the Christian Science Monitor reviews the basics of the Supreme Court's work today in Miller and provides this quick accounting of the number of sentences obviously thrown into question by the ruling:

Currently about 2,500 individuals are serving life without parole prison sentences for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old. Of those, roughly 2,000 of the sentences were mandatory.

These numbers sound about right to me (these are the numbers bandied about by the Chief Justice in his dissent), though I would be grateful to see/hear a more precise accounting from anyone in the know.

Interestingly, the two states with the most juvenile offenders who received mandatory LWOP sentences appear to be Pennsylvania (with nearly 450, I believe) and Michigan (with nearly 350, I believe). Neither of these states have typically been on the cutting edge of Eighth Amendment litigation front-lines in recent years, and it will now be very interesting to watch when and how state courts (and lower federal courts) deal with the coming Miller-inspired litigation.

Other states with lots of mandatory juve LWOP defendants worth watching include California, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Illinois, all of which have, I believe, at least 100 defendants serving state LWOP sentences for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old.  [UPDATE:  Kent rightfully indicates in the comments that California's LWOP sentences are discretionary (though I have heard them called presumptive, raising another possible litigation front.]  Another two dozen states also have more than a handful defendants serving state LWOP sentences for juve crimes, and it is certainly possible (even likely?) that states with a smaller number of problematic JLWOP cases after Miller will be quicker to hear and resolve new Eighth Amendment claims.

June 25, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Guest-post from Professor Mark Osler: "Miller on the ground in Michigan"

I am pleased to be able to provide the first what I hope might become a series of guest-posts from various folks on what the Supreme Court's work today in Miller v. Alabama  (opinion here, basics here, questions here) might mean in various jurisdictions in various setting. Kudos to Professor Mark Osler for getting me the first entry with a first-take on this big new Eighth Amendment ruling, which he titled "Miller on the ground in Michigan":

There was a bit of a mess after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Miller v. Alabama today.  AP reporter Jesse Holland initially sent out a story simply stating that the court had ruled that life without parole sentences were unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.  The truth was more complex: The Court more narrowly held that what is unconstitutional is a sentencing scheme where the only sentence available to a convicted juvenile offender is life without parole.  Not all states have this kind of mandatory sentencing scheme for murder, but many do.

Still, the Miller decision creates some fascinating outcomes.  For example, Michigan has mandatory sentencing in this kind of case, and the second largest number of juvenile offenders serving LWOP sentences (after Pennsylvania).  That means that over 300 sentences may now be in jeopardy, and the state will have to amend its procedure to allow for a parole eligible sentence in the case of juvenile offenders.  Intriguingly, left untouched is Michigan’s rule of automatic transfer to adult status in murder cases — the second part of that state’s legal mechanism which led to so many juvenile LWOP cases.

Aside from the continuing battle before the Court on the constitutionality of Juvenile LWOP, which now moves to discretionary sentences, tough questions face the states affected by Miller.  Perhaps most importantly, a state like Michigan has hundreds of inmates serving sentences obtained by an unconstitutional process.  If they succeed in getting those sentences overturned, what happens next?  Michigan law does not allow for a sentence other than LWOP.  Presumably, they could be dumped into the regular parole system, or the state could create a special process for these prisoners already deemed to be different than other murderers by fact of their age at the time of the crime.

There is an opportunity in this — an opportunity to create a new kind of meaningful review that takes into account the views of experts in adolescent development and brain science, victims’ family members, prison officials, and those who support the convicted juvenile. I’m hoping that at least some jurisdictions take a fresh look at the process as whole and not only get rid of mandatory transfers, but inject more meaning into the kind of second look that these offenders might receive.

June 25, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Issue-spotting the mess sure to follow Miller's narrow (procedural?) ruling

I am surely going to need many more hours (perhaps many more days and weeks) to figure out what all the votes and all the dicta in all the Miller v. Alabama opinions (opinion here, basics here) might mean for the future of Supreme Court Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. But I have already started figuring out some of the very hard questions already sure to be facing lots of lower courts in the wake of Miller ASAP.  Here are just a few that come (too) quickly to mind:

1.  Will all (many? any?) juvenile murderers mandatorily sentenced long ago to LWOP necesarily get the benefit of a resentencing after Miller Arguably, Miller is only a new procedural rule that may not be retroactively applicable in federal habeas due to Teague.  But states can (and should?) decide not to follow Teague and arguments can (and surely will) be made that Miller fits into a Teague exception because in announces the (new?) "substantive" rule that kids are always different for Eighth Amendment purposes.

2.  Will any (many?) juvenile murderers discretionarily sentenced long ago to LWOP possibly get the benefit of a resentencing after MillerMiller only formally prohibits mandatory LWOP for juvenile murderers, but it also make clear that kids are categorically different for sentencing purposes. Arguments can (and surely will) be made that Miller suggests all kids sentenced in the past to LWOP ought to get a new shot at sentencing now that SCOTUS has made clear kids are different.

3.  When and how will juvenile murderers manditorially sentenced to LWOP get resentenced? Are there any special rules for how to consider kids are different? Does the nature of the murder, as well as the defendants age, have to matter? If a state lacks parole, can it give 75-year sentences to these kids at resentencing?

I could go on and on and on, but now I have to run to a meeting. Many more posts and questions are sure to follow!

June 25, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

All juvenile defendants get narrow procedural Eighth Amendment win in Miller

Though I am still trying to figure out all the opinions in today SCOTUS Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama (opinion here, basics here), I think I am correct to assert that the ruling is a (surprising?) big win for any and all older juveniles sentenced to LWOP under a mandatory sentencing scheme, while also appearing to be a (surprising?) potential loss for anyone hoping or expecting the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional any and all LWOP sentences for any and all juvenile offenders.

Here are the paragraphs from the start and end of the majority opinion in Miller per Justice Kagan which lead me to the conclusion that the Miller ruling is pretty limited and narrow as a win for juvenile defendants:

The two 14-year-old offenders in these cases were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  In neither case did the sentencing authority have any discretion to impose a different punishment.  State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example,life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate.  Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s “lessened culpability” and greater “capacity for change,” Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 17, 23), and runs afoul of our cases’ requirement of individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties.  We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”...

Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.  By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receivelifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemesbefore us violate this principle of proportionality, and sothe Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  We accordingly reverse the judgments of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and remand the cases for further proceedings notinconsistent with this opinion.

I am very much drawn to this procedural approach to the issues in Miller and Jackson, in part because this was the way I urged the Court to resolve these cases in this amicus brief I filed along with my students.  But, until I have a full chance to review the holding and dicta in the Miller opinions, I am not quite yet ready to praise without reservations this new important Eighth Amendment decision.

June 25, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack

SCOTUS rules 5-4 in favor of juve offenders in Jackson and Miller

Reporting here on SCOTUSblog reporting on what its reporter Lyle Denniston is reporting from the Supreme Court this morning:

The Court [per Justice Kagan] holds that the Eighth Amendment forbids a [mandatory] scheme of life in prison without possibility of parole for juveniles. The vote is five to four [with lots of Justices writing dissents]. The decisions of Ark. S. Ct. and Alabama Ct. of Crim. Appeals are reversed.

The full opinion in Miller is now available at this link, and here is the detailed breakdown of all the opinions:

KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which SOTOMAYOR, J., joined. ROBERTS, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined.

June 25, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

NY Times debates "When to Punish, and When to Rehabilitate" for juve offenders

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces discussing punishments for juvenile offenders.  Here is the sections set up:

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on when, if ever, it is appropriate to sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole.  The arguments this spring showed the complexity of drawing the lines between child and adult, and between justice and cruelty.

When minors commit violent crimes, should they be treated differently from adults?  Is prison effective as a punishment and deterrent for juveniles, or does it harden a young person who might otherwise recover?

Here are the contribututions, with links via the commentary titles:

June 6, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, June 04, 2012

Another week of SCOTUS waiting for sentencing fans

I had thought there was a reasonable possibility that the Supreme Court sometime this week might hand down one of the big sentencing cases still pending: Southern Union (Apprendi's application to fines); Jackson and Miller (mandatory LWOP for young juve murderers); Dorsey and Hill (the FSA's application to pipeline cases).  But, as detailed via this post at How Appealing, the Justices did not issue opinions in any of these cases this morning.  They Justices did grant cert and hand down one opinion on police practice issues, and Lyle Denniston reports here at SCOTUSblog that probably the most notable criminal justice decision was a cert denied in two high-profile federal convictions flowing from campaign donations in Alabama. 

According to the folks at SCOTUSblog, it appear that the Court will not hand down opinions again until next Monday.  So, it's another week of waiting for these sentencing rulings.  Fortunately, absent some dramatic or unexpected development (such as a order for reagument), I think we can reasonably expect to see opinions in all of these cases within the next three weeks.

Anyone yet eager to make predictions on the timing, outcomes, vote counts or opinion writers in these big sentencing cases.  At this moments I am inclined to guess we will get Southern Union next week, the juve LWOP cases the week of June 18, and the FSA pipeline cases the week of June 25.  In addition, I think the defendants are likely to previal in these cases by votes of 7-2, 5-4, and 6-3, with Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Sotomayor as principal opinion writers. 

But who really knows with this Court these days!?!?

June 4, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seeking advice on (and cites to) thoughtful state Eighth Amendment rulings

In all likelihood, we still have a few more weeks to wait for Supreme Court rulings in in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the two big pending Eighth Amendment cases concerning the constitutionality of states sentencing 14-year-old killers to life without the possibility of parole.  In part because I hope the coming rulings in Jackson and Miller might spark and provide a foundation for a new round of interesting constitutional litigation over extreme prison sentences (and not just for young offenders), I am interested in gathering information about the most interesting and thoughtful Eighth Amendment rulings coming from state courts in recent years (particularly in the wake of the Graham ruling).

I am aware of some leading recent state court Eighth Amendment rulings in states like California and Florida and Iowa, all of which had to swiftly and directly confront the import and impact of the Graham ruling for a number of juvenile offenders serving very long prison terms for nonhomicide offenses.  But I know I have seen a few interesting and thoughtful post-Graham rulings concerning limits on adult sentences imposed by the Eighth Amendment (and/or similar state constitutional provisions) from state supreme courts in Ohio and South Dakota and others states.  And I suspect there are (lots of?) notable rulings from lower state appellate courts (both affirming and reversing long prison sentences) that I have not seen.

Ergo this "bleg" for help from readers:  Can and will folks via the comments to this post (or via an e-mail) suggest examples with cites/links to what they consider the most interesting and thoughtful Eighth Amendment rulings coming from state courts in recent years?

For purposes of this bleg, I am most interested in non-capital cases and especially those rulings involving challenges to adult sentences.  But I am happy to hear about just about any recent significant state court rulings (for or against a defendant) that thoughtfully engage with modern Eighth Amendment doctrines and/or with comparable state constitutional provisions.  Thanks!

May 30, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New report highlights inequities in Michigan’s JLWOP sentences

JlwopmapAs reported in this new press release, the public policy group Second Chances 4 Youth along with the ACLU of Michigan has release a new report "documenting the systemic disadvantages facing juveniles in the adult criminal justice." This report, which it titled “Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth,” is summarized in the press releade this way:

The 38-page report explores the fiscal and human costs of juvenile life without parole sentences and the disproportionate punishments and documented racial disparities found in the plea bargaining process for youth accused of certain crimes. The findings rely on publicly available data produced by the Michigan Department of Corrections and survey responses from individuals originally charged with first-degree homicide in Michigan for crimes committed as youth since 1975. The report documents the many challenges youth face in the criminal justice system, including that:

• Race seriously affects the plea bargaining process for adolescents. Youth accused of a homicide offense where the victim was white were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was a person of color. In addition, there are clear geographic disparities with Oakland, Calhoun, Saginaw and Kent Counties offering lessor sentences to youth at significantly lower rates than the state average.

• Juveniles reject plea offers at much higher rates than adults; therefore adults receive lessor sentences for comparable crimes. Juveniles are less equipped to negotiate plea offers because of their immaturity, inexperience, and failure to realize the value of a plea deal. Many report that they did not fully understand the nature of the charges they were facing, the crime they were on trial for, or the meaning of parole.

• Attorneys who have represented youth convicted and sentenced to life without parole in Michigan have an abnormally high rate of attorney discipline from the State Bar of Michigan. About 5 percent of all attorneys are reprimanded, however 38 percent of counsel representing youth sentenced to life without parole have been publicly sanctioned or disciplined for egregious violations of ethical conduct.

Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole. Judges and juries are not allowed to take into account the fact that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole. In the last five years, there has been a downward trend in imposing such sentences across the nation.  Michigan is one of only six states deviating from this national movement. Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger.

Intriguingly, this new report does not at all discuss the pending SCOTUS cases of Jackson and Miller, which could possibly result in a ruling that all LWOP sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  Perhaps that is wise; it remains hard to predict exactly what the Justices will end up doing in those cases when they hand down an opinion in the coming weeks before the end of the current Term.

Moreover, this new report categorically urges, inter alia, that Michigan "abolish Michigan’s sentence of life without the possibility of parole for children who commit homicide offenses prior to the age of 18" and "provide an opportunity for parole for any youth having served ten years of a life sentence with annual reviews thereafter and mandatory public hearing every five years."  In part because the Jackson and Miller cases both involve offenders who committed murders at age 14, and in part because SCOTUS has never required a particular timeline for parole consideration, there is little chance that even a very broad SCOTUS ruling in Jackson and Miller will require many (or even any) of the reforms urged by this new report.

May 15, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 22, 2012

George Will urges SCOTUS to find juve LWOP unconstitutional in all cases

I am intrigued and pleased to see that George Will's latest column in the Washington Post adopts the same position as I have embraced in the two juve LWOP cases, Miller and Jackson, now before the Supreme Court.  Will's column is headlined "Cruel and unusual — a test case," and here are excerpts:

Today, 221 years after the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, the Supreme Court is again pondering the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” The case illustrates the complexity of construing some constitutional language in changing contexts of social science and brain science.

Evan Miller, whose five suicide attempts surely had something to do with the serious domestic abuse he suffered, was complicit in a brutal murder and in 2006 was sentenced to life in an Alabama prison without the possibility of parole. Kuntrell Jackson was involved in a video store robbery during which an accomplice fatally shot the store clerk. In 2003, Jackson was sentenced to life in an Arkansas prison without the possibility of parole. Miller and Jackson were 14 when they committed their crimes. Both were tried as adults before judges who had no discretion to impose any other sentence. Such mandatory sentences preclude judges weighing a consideration of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence — proportionality.

Before its June 26 recess, the Supreme Court will decide whether sentencing children to die in prison is cruel. It certainly is unusual: Although 2,300 current prisoners have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles (age 17 or younger), just 79 prisoners in 18 states are serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14.

The court must consider not only what is society’s sense of cruelty but also how that sense should be shaped by what some new technologies reveal about adolescent brain biology. Shakespeare’s shepherd in “The Winter’s Tale” did not need to see brain scans to wish that “there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

And with age-related laws restricting the right to drink, drive, marry, serve on juries, etc., all American states have long acknowledged adolescents’ developmental shortcomings. Neuroscience, however, now helps explain why aspects of adolescents’ brains make young people susceptible to impulsive behavior and to failing to anticipate and understand the consequences of it....

In 1958, the court said: “The [Eighth] Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Justice Antonin Scalia has warned: “A society that adopts a bill of rights is skeptical that ‘evolving standards of decency’ always ‘mark progress,’ and that societies always ‘mature,’ as opposed to rot.” But even the “originalist” Scalia, although disposed to construe the Constitution’s terms as they were understood when ratified, would today proscribe some late-18th-century punishments, such as public lashing and branding.

Denying juveniles even a chance for parole defeats the penal objective of rehabilitation. It deprives prisoners of the incentive to reform themselves. Some prisons withhold education, counseling and other rehabilitation programs from prisoners ineligible for parole. Denying these to adolescents in a period of life crucial to social and psychological growth stunts what the court in 2005 called the prisoner’s “potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” Which seems, in a word — actually, three words — “cruel and unusual.”

April 22, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Miller and Jackson: The Court Struggles to Frame the Issue

On reading the transcripts in the two juve LWOP cases that the Supreme Court heard today, Miller and Jackson, I'm struck by how confused the Justices are about how to frame the issues. The advocates certainly didn't seem to give the Court the help it was looking for.

Arguing for petitioners, Bryan Stevenson proposed a rule that seemed a bald policy proposal rather than one rooted in any legal authority: a flat ban on life without parole for defendants who were under 15 at the time of the crime, and a ban on automatic or mandatory life without parole for those between the ages of 15 and 18. He tried to rely on several states' having set thresholds of 15 or older for life without parole but had a hard time establishing a benchmark or national consensus, given that 39 states authorize life without parole for at least some juveniles for at least some crimes.

The Court seemed to have no clearer ideas about how to frame the issue. Justice Scalia repeatedly referred to the jury as a safeguard in authorizing the penalty, even though, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, juries cannot be told of the penalty, so the idea that they are authorizing the penalty is a fiction. If anything, Justice Scalia's passion for jury checks upon the government (in the Apprendi line of cases) ought to cut the other way here, where prosecutors' charging decisions trigger mandatory sentences while leaving juries in the dark.

In keeping with his formalism, Justice Scalia (as well as Justice Alito) made some fair points about the dangers of slippery slopes and distinguishing sentences of life from 60 years, 50 years, et cetera. I was surprised that neither he nor anyone else reached back to the common law's benchmarks for youths, in which those under 7 are conclusively incapable of crimes and those under 14 are rebuttably presumed incapable, according to Blackstone. That might roughly track the line Stevenson was trying to draw, except that it would erect only a presumption rather than a flat ban.

Justice Kennedy complained about the false dichotomy proposed by petitioners: that mandatory life without parole was either categorically forbidden or categorically permissible. That framing is in part attributable to Justice Kennedy's prior ruling in Graham, which rejected the Chief Justice's case-by-case approach to categorically forbid life without parole for juveniles who do not kill. I don't see the Court repudiating Graham, but neither do I think the Court will simply extend those precedents.

Justice Sotomayor, interestingly, kept emphasizing the Enmund / Tison line of capital cases limiting which minor actors in a murder can receive the death penalty. The signal seems to be that all the death penalty doctrines, which were previously cabined by the death-is-different line, are now fair game for argument in this area.

In that vein, it struck me that no one did nearly enough with the Woodson / Lockett / Eddings line of death-penalty cases, which require that the trier of fact have some discretion to mitigate penalties based on the particulars of individual cases. From the tenor of the argument, it seemed that many Justices were looking for a safety valve, a way to allow individualization for the least bad juvenile accomplices rather than for a flat ban. Some of the Justices' comments indicated that they recognized that Miller's crime was more heinous than Jackson's and might be looking for ways to differentiate the two.

If the Justices wanted to regulate such decisions, there are subtler ways to do so than extending Graham's ban. They could require that juries be informed of the penalty and affirmatively authorize the sentence, by extending either Simmons v. South Carolina or Apprendi to inform juries and require them to affirmatively authorize the penalty. That could harken back to the colonial tradition (discussed in my last post) of allowing juries flexibility to show mercy. Or the Court could forbid using life without parole as a plea-bargaining chip, so that juvenile defendants don't wind up with the longest sentence simply because they are reckless in choosing to go to trial.

As with Florence v. Burlington County earlier this term, the Court granted certiorari to address what seemed an excess of the criminal justice system, only to discover that trying to fix the problem would entangle the Court in a thicket of arbitrary line-drawing. Perhaps the difficulty of the exercise will scare them off, or perhaps they will embrace Justice Sotomayor's suggestion that the category of life without parole be whittled down further to those who personally kill, intend to kill, or attempt to kill and are not simply lookouts or getaway drivers. Predictions here are too hazardous--the actual outcome is anyone's guess.

Stephanos Bibas

March 20, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Guest blogging by Professor Stephanos Bibas, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Seeking policy preferences: no LWOP for younger juves or no mandatory LWOP for all juves?

Today's oral argument in the two big JLWOP cases in the Supreme Court (basics reported here) suggests that some Justices may be drawn to a substantive Eighth Amendment rule precluding any and all very young offenders (say those 14 and under) from ever getting an LWOP sentence, while others may be drawn to a procedural rule precluding a mandatory LWOP sentence for any juvenile.

Putting to one side for now constitutional concerns about the development of Eighth Amendment doctrine for this case and other, I wonder which rule would be preferred simply as a matter of public policy among readers of this blog.

March 20, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Intriguing early report on SCOTUS arguments in today's JLWOP cases

Lyle Denniston in this lengthy post at SCOTUSblog has an interesting and thoughtful report on the oral arguments this morning in the Supreme Court in in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.  Here are excerpts of his report:

Moving further along the constitutional line between adults and children in the criminal courts, the Supreme Court on Tuesday turned to life-without-parole sentences for youths who commit murder, and appeared to be reaching for a compromise. If the indications from a one-hour hearing hold, the Court might allow such sentences to be imposed on youths, but not as a mandatory matter for younger teenagers. And it could choose to forbid that penalty at all for some, but where that line might be drawn was far from clear – although it might wind up at 12 or younger.  In more than 90 minutes of argument in two cases, there was no sign that a majority would come together on a flat ban for such a sentence for anyone under age 18 — the preferred outcome sought by two youths’ lawyer....

In the cases of Miller v. Alabama (10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647), most of the Justices appeared to share the sentiment expressed early by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that the Court did not want to be forced to choose between two opposite choices: no life-without-parole sentences for any minor, or no limit on the sentence for anyone no matter how young. And there also seemed to be considerable support for Kennedy’s apparent willingness to focus mainly on the question of whether such a sentence should be mandatory and, if so, whether that should be keyed to a specific age. Kennedy’s views may be crucial, since he has been the author of the Court’s key rulings on youths’ sentencing....

Once it is accepted that “death is different,” Scalia commented, there is no basis for having a different age category in determining punishment for one who kills. That, essentially, was the argument made in the two cases by lawyers for the states: if a youth commits the “worst of crimes,” they should be a legally responsible as anyone who does so, the states’ counsel contended....

John C. Nieman, Jr., the state of Alabama’s solicitor general, argued that the fact that there are 39 states that would allow such a sentence for a specific crime without regard to the offender’s age is proof of a “national consensus” that such punishment is not constitutionally excessive. His main difficulty — and it was the same for Kent G. Holt, an assistant state attorney general for Arkansas, in the second case — came from the fact that many of the states in that group make such a sentence mandatory. Justice Stephen G. Breyer led the verbal assault on that proposition, wondering what justification a state could have for not allowing a young offender to make any argument to “mitigate” what Breyer called “this terrible penalty.” Justice Kennedy later wondered the same thing. Kennedy also wondered if there were data that would indicate what proportion of youthful offenders given long sentences are able to be rehabilitated, implying that he might be sympathetic to some option for a youth ultimately to gain release.

Justice Elena Kagan, noting that the Court has insisted upon a focus on the individual offender when a judge is considering a death sentence, wondered why the same approach should not apply to juveniles faced with a life-without-parole sentence. Neiman countered that the Court had made it clear that this was required only in the context of the death penalty, and that states are entitled to have mandatory term-of-years sentences. Justice Breyer suggested that one option might be to require that the individualizing of sentences should be required for any youth who committed murder while under age 18....

When the Court turned to the second case, it found itself examining whether it should make a difference, in a juvenile’s murder case, whether the individual facing a life-without-parole sentence had actually killed someone, or intended that a crime go forward knowing that someone might be killed. Justice Sotomayor, in fact, stepped in before Stevenson even began that argument to ask him how the Court would write an opinion that drew a line against a life-without-parole sentence for a youth who had a role in a murder case but was not the actual killer, and did not intend that there be a murder....

Several of the Justices seemed inclined to regard more sympathetically a youth facing a mandatory sentence, especially one who did not actually kill the victim. But the argument quickly turned back to the Court’s exploration of where a dividing line should be drawn in any juvenile murder case.

Arkansas’s attorney, Holt, urged the Court to keep the focus on the crime that has been committed, not on the offender. Murder, he said, is “the worst of all crimes,” and the law seeks to punish its commission with the heaviest of sentences to show society’s intolerance of taking a human life. "That is the line that society draws,” he argued.  Now that the Supreme Court has barred the death penalty for minors who commit murder, Holt said, any youth who is sentenced to life-without-parole is deserving of that sentence. Life-without-parole, he said, is a “lesser sentence,” so a youth who commits murder should not be allowed to seek “a lesser lesser sentence.”...

In a moment, Justice Ginsburg said that sending a 14-year-old prison to prison under a sentence that means he will die in prison meant that this “essentially makes a 14-year-old a throwaway person.” Holt objected to that characterization, saying that the state wanted him to be put in a position “to realize the enormity of his crime.” And, when Justice Sotomayor wondered what hope such a youth has, the state’s lawyer said that he could apply to have his sentence commuted, despite the fact that he had been sentenced to life-without-parole.

UPDATE:  The SCOTUS oral argument transcripts from Miller v. Alabama is available at this link and from Jackson v. Hobbs is available at this link.

March 20, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, March 19, 2012

Video preview of Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases

As repeatedly mentioned recently, the Supreme Court is due to hear oral argument tomorrow in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.  The crackerjack folks here at the OSU Moritz College of Law has put together this video preview of the case (in which you can see me magically placed in front of the US Supreme Court while I discuss the basic jurisprudential issues in Jackson and Miller and also this amicus brief that I put together along with a group of my students for these cases).

Some recent related posts providing previews of Jackson and Miller cases:

March 19, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Lots of media coverage anticipating SCOTUS arguments on JLWOP

Unsurprisingly, the media now has lots of discussion of kids sent to prison for life with the US Supreme Court due to hear oral argument tomorrow in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.  Here is just a sampling of some of the notable new pieces from both old and new media:

From ABC News here, "Juvenile Murderers: Is Life Without Parole Unconstitutional?"

From the Chicago Tribune here, "For young killers, 'a chance to have a chance'; Supreme Court to consider whether a life sentence without parole is too harsh for juveniles"

From the Daily Beast here, "Ex-Prisoners Say Life Term Is Cruel for Teens, As Case Hits High Court"

From UPI here, "Under the U.S. Supreme Court: When children commit murder"

In addition, a large number of news outlets have recent editorials urging SCOTUS to declare these juve LWOP sentences always unconstitution, including CNN and the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and the Washington Post and lots of other smaller media outlets from all around the nation (as evidenced here and here and here).

Some recent related posts on Jackson and Miller cases:

March 19, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, March 12, 2012

Taking stock of Michigan's interests in JLWOP issues before SCOTUS

10656781-largeA week from tomorrow, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.  As I have said before, all the primary briefing and amicus briefing in Jackson (linked here) and Miller (linked here) suggest that many SCOTUS Justices are likely to find these cases quite vexing in the wake of their Eighth Amendment work in Roper and Graham

And, as a new series of articles appearing in local papers, there are many states beyond these involved in the prosecutions before SCOTUS that will be following these cases very closely.  In particular, as this article from Michigan highlights, a few states that never before had to worry much about the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence might have its criminal justice world rocked by Jackson and Miller.  The article appears to be the first in a week-long series gearing up for the SCOTUS arguments, and it is headlined "Judgment Day for Michigan's juvenile lifers: The U.S. Supreme Court considers banning life without parole for minors." Here are some excerpts:

He was 14 years, 11 months and 1 day old.  That night TJ Tremble rode his bike to the home of Peter and Ruth Stanley.  He had the .22-caliber rifle given him by his dad.  He had alcohol in his belly, some also from his dad.  And, police say, he had murder on his mind.

Before daylight, the Michigan youth would be behind bars for the rest of his life.  Or maybe not.  Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether mandatory life sentences are too cruel for anyone so young.  It will be exactly 14 years, 11 months and 1 day since Tremble got on his bike.

Now 29, is it possible he has changed in the second half of his life, or that he can change with more time?  Should he at least have the consideration to one day walk free?  Or does death make it different?

In a state with more “juvenile lifers” than almost any other, the answers will resonate throughout Michigan as the high court addresses this: Are life sentences, without any chance of parole, unconstitutional even for juveniles who commit unthinkable crimes?  If the court’s earlier rulings are an indication, the answers could be yes....

An MLive Media Group investigation last November detailed how mandatory sentencing laws and get-tough reforms propelled Michigan near the top of the nation in juvenile lifers. Only Pennsylvania has more.

Nearly two dozen inmates were profiled.  Several had not committed the killing, but were present.  Sometimes the accomplices got more time than the killer, a quirk of mandatory sentencing laws, rejected pleas and juries.

In the midst of the series, the Supreme Court announced it would consider whether juveniles are too impulsive, their brains too underdeveloped, their remaining lives too long to receive the same sentences as adults in death cases.

This story, and stories to come this week, are meant to explore what that could mean for Michigan.  At present, 359 inmates are serving life in the state for crimes committed as minors, one out of seven nationally, according to MLive’s updated analysis.  The number was one higher until last month, when a prisoner from Kalamazoo was resentenced to a parolable term -- 33 years after he fled a grocery store robbery.  His partner stayed behind and killed the owner.

Six of Michigan’s 359 were 14 at the time of their crime -- the same as two inmates whose cases are being considered by the Supreme Court....

The nation’s youngest lifers are small compared to the 2,500 overall.  Seventy-three were 14 and 13 at the time of their crimes, according to Supreme Court filings.  The six serving time in Michigan for crimes as 14-year-olds are all males, as are most of the state’s juvenile lifers.  Unlike others, they are equally split between blacks and whites, and rural and urban backgrounds.

That’s contrary to the state’s juvenile lifer population overall: 69 percent black and largely from urban areas, according to MLive’s analysis.  Most were 17 at the time of their crime, but 45 percent were 16 and younger.  Wayne County sentenced the most, 41 percent, followed well back by Oakland, Genesee, Kent and Saginaw counties.

Of the class of 14-year-old lifers, all were sentenced after Jan. 1, 1997.  That’s when the age group was added to those who prosecutors could automatically try as adults for serious crimes.

Some recent related posts on Jackson and Miller cases:

March 12, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 01, 2012

"The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey"

The title of this post is the title of this important and timely new report from the folks at The Swentencing Project.  Here is how the report is described in an e-mail I received today:

The Lives of Juvenile Lifers presents findings from the first-ever national survey of this population, a comprehensive look that offers new perspectives on people who committed crimes before the age of 18, and some as young as 13. More than 2,500 people are currently serving these sentences in the United States.

The report comes just weeks before the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the cases of two 14-year olds, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which will address questions about the constitutionality of sentencing teens to life without the possibility of parole.

“Most juveniles serving life without parole sentences experienced trauma and neglect long before they engaged in their crimes,” stated Ashley Nellis, research analyst of The Sentencing Project and author of the report.  “The findings from this survey do not excuse the crimes committed but they help explain them. With time, rehabilitation and maturity, some of these youth could one day safely re-enter society and contribute positively to their families and their communities.”

The Lives of Juvenile Lifers survey draws a portrait of the severe disadvantage experienced by those serving life sentences without parole:

  • Juvenile lifers, especially girls, suffered high rates of abuse — nearly half (46.9%) of lifers experienced physical abuse, including 79.5 % among girls. 
  • Juvenile lifers were exposed to high levels of violence in their homes (79%) and their communities (54.1%).
  • African American youth constitute 43.4% of life without parole sentences for a murder with a white victim, nearly twice the rate at which they are arrested for such crimes, 23.7%.

Failed by systems intended to protect youth, many juveniles sentenced to life without parole first suffer from extreme socioeconomic disadvantage, and are then sentenced to an extreme punishment deemed unacceptable in any other nation.

March 1, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Briefs available, and jurisprudential challenges clear, in Jackson and Miller JLWOP cases

I had the great pleasure yesterday to serve as a judge in the final round of OSU's moot court competition (with two terrific real Ohio jurists, as detailed here), and the case being argued was Miller v. Alabama, one of the two cases to be heard by SCOTUS next month concerning the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.  These oral arguments, combined with all of the primary briefing and amicus briefing in Miller (linked here) and the companion case Jackson v. Hobbs (linked here), confirmed my instinct that many SCOTUS Justices are likely to find these cases quite vexing in the wake of their work in Roper and Graham.

Regular readers likely will not be surprised to hear that I am hoping the Supreme Court find the LWOP sentences imposed in Jackson and Miller to be unconstitutional.  But readers may be surprised to hear that I continue to be somewhat concerned by the Justices' decision in Graham to adopt a bright-line approach to the Eighth Amendment rather than the more nuanced case-by-case approach as was suggested by Chief Justice Roberts in his Graham concurrence.  And my concerned is heightened because the advocates and amici in Jackson and Miller are understandably inclined to push bright-line arguments: the defense side urges an Eighth Amendment rule that JLWOP is always unconstitutional (at least for younger juves), while the states seek a ruling that JLWOP us never unconstitutional for the crime of first-degree murder.

For a bunch of reasons (only some of which are set forth in this amicus brief that I put together along with a group of my students for these cases), I have an inherent disaffinity for rigid and simplistic bright-line rules at sentencing.  And, especially as the Justices seem finally ready to place a few (long overdue) constitutional limits on extremely severe prison sentences, I think Eighth Amendment jurisprudence would benefit from more nuanced case-by-case developments than by adoption (or rejection) of various bright-line rules.  Moreover, the case-specific offense and offender facts in Miller and especially in Jackson, seem to make lead me to think that embrace of bright-line rules in these cases could end up doing more long-term harm than good to sound constitutional (and sub-constitutional) sentencing jurisprudence.

February 28, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Teen killers get inconsistent sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable piece from Massachusetts, which gets started this way:

Shrewsbury teen Valerie N. Hall pushed her mother down a flight of stairs in 2000, smashed her head in with a hammer and left Kathleen Thompsen Hall to die while she went for a ride with her boyfriend. For her mother's murder, Hall, a depressed and suicidal 16-year-old at the time, served nine years in prison.

Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School student John Odgren, who suffers from depression and other mental ailments, fatally stabbed schoolmate James Alenson in the boy's bathroom in 2007 when he was 16, and after realizing what he had done, tried to get help. Odgren is serving life without the possibility of parole at Bridgewater State Hospital.

Both crimes were ghastly. Both teens suffered from mental illness. Both were charged with first-degree murder. But their punishments could not have been more different.

The dispositions of the Hall and Odgren cases illustrate the profound inequities that have grown up in the Massachusetts juvenile justice system since the passage of a tough sentencing law enacted 15 years ago and designed to punish the most depraved “super-predators” among teen killers.

An investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting reveals, for the first time, that that law is not being applied consistently to the most horrific juvenile murder cases, as it was intended. The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this spring to tackle whether it is “cruel and unusual” punishment to sentence juveniles 14 and under to life without parole for murder.

In Massachusetts, there is no obvious pattern as to why some killers are sentenced to life without parole and others — who committed shocking, grisly crimes such as fatally beating a 2-year-old — escaped the harsh sentence. Juveniles whose crimes approach the cruelty of the teen whose case triggered the passage of the 1996 law, Edward O'Brien, have escaped the severe sentence, while spontaneous acts of violence by teenagers with little prior record are punished with life behind bars.

O'Brien was 15 in 1995 when he fatally stabbed his best friend's mother, slashing her more than 90 times. He was initially to be tried in juvenile court, but public outcry about the possibility of a lenient juvenile sentence led lawmakers to quickly pass the tough new law aimed at punishing “adult crime with adult time.” Under that law, a teen convicted of first-degree murder must serve life in prison without any chance of being released.

Before the change, juvenile killers could only be sentenced to serve until age 21 unless their case was transferred to adult court. Since 1996, dozens of teens between the ages of 14 and 16 have been charged with murder in Massachusetts, but only seven have been sentenced to life without parole. In only two cases — the fatal beating with a hammer and the stabbing of a stranger in a school restroom — did their crimes approach the depravity of O'Brien's murder of Janet Downing.

Four of the teenage lifers acted impulsively, settling petty disputes with lethal attacks, the review of murder cases shows. Only two of the seven lifers had a record of violent crime, the investigation found, and two had no criminal history at all. “We'd like to reserve the maximum penalty for the worst cases, for the most dangerous individuals,” said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, a critic of the current system. The seven teens that got life without parole “do not appear to be the worst cases.”

February 15, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack