Sunday, June 23, 2024

Helpful review of pending state constitutional litigation over LWOP sentencing for felony murder

This recent State Court Report entry provides a relatively short and quite helpful review of past debates and some present litigation surrounding felony murder.  The full headling of the piece serves as a useful summary: "State Supreme Courts May Abolish Life Without Parole For 'Felony Murder': People serving life in prison in Colorado, Michigan, and Pennsylvania for murder — even though they never meant to kill anyone — are arguing their sentences are unconstitutionally cruel."  I recommend the piece in full for full context, and here are some excerpts (with links from the original):

[T]he felony murder rule, long-ago abolished in England but still alive in 48 states, has persisted as one of American criminal law’s cruelest features.  Shattering norms of criminal liability, felony murder severely punishes people for deaths that they neither caused nor intended to cause, but that in some way flowed from their actions, with the connection often tenuous to the point of nonexistent....

A recent Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker article, for example, tells the story of a man who was miles away and handcuffed when his accomplice in some car burglaries accidentally struck and killed two cyclists as he fled from police. Yet the handcuffed man was convicted of murder and sentenced to mandatory life without parole. His obvious and undisputed distance from the killings — both geographically and with regard to his intent — reduced neither his charges nor, given its mandatory nature, his sentence....

Even more than other facets of criminal law, the rule targets the vulnerable and historically marginalized, exacerbating already deep inequities in our criminal legal system. Felony murder yields massive racial disparities, and is often wielded against people who are suffering from addiction (such as if they share drugs with a friend who overdoses), survivors of domestic abuse (including when women are coerced into criminal conduct by abusive men), and young people (who are often punished for the conduct of adults and authority figures or their friends)....

In the coming months, Colorado, Michigan, and Pennsylvania will decide [state constitutional claims] that challenge life without parole sentences for felony murder.

In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the more than 1,100 people serving life without parole for felony murder are Black.  One of them, Derek Lee, has petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to rule that his mandatory life sentence violates the state constitution’s ban on “cruel” punishments.  Lee argues that Pennsylvania’s constitution must be construed both independently from and more broadly than the Eighth Amendment, and that the complete disconnect between felony murder and any legitimate penological purpose renders his life sentence unconstitutional.  In amicus briefings, his claim has unusually broad support from, among others, former prosecutors, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, and former state Department of Corrections officials who argue that “life without parole sentences for felony murders are financially insensible” and that “many or even most lifers could be released without incident to their communities.”

Meanwhile, another man convicted of felony murder has made similar arguments to the Colorado Supreme Court, with one key addition.  In 2018, when Wayne Sellers was convicted, state law mandated a life without parole sentence.  But Colorado changed the law in 2021, and reduced the sentence for future felony murder convictions to a range of 16 to 48 years — affording both greater leniency and sentencing discretion.  The change did not apply to Sellers, who now asks the state high court to rule that his sentence is unconstitutional.  During oral arguments [last week], some justices appeared hesitant to “substitute [their] judgment for the legislature[’s]” — despite the court’s previous acknowledgment that sentencing reforms are a key indicator of the state’s evolving standards of decency that are central to a constitutional excessive punishment claim.

Finally, the Michigan Supreme Court — which recently surpassed federal case law to prohibit mandatory life without parole sentences for 18 year olds — has asked for briefs on whether “mandatory life without parole for felony murder” violates the state constitutional ban on cruel or unusual punishments.  That case is brought by Edwin Langston, a now-elderly man who in 1976 was held responsible for a murder committed by someone else during a robbery, and for which Langston was not even present.

There remain strong arguments that the Eighth Amendment forbids consigning people to die in prison based on felony murder convictions, even if the current U.S. Supreme Court majority is unlikely to embrace them.  But state constitutional law provides a path to justice that doesn’t require reconciling inconsistent and flawed precedent upholding extreme prison terms for modest crimes.  State supreme courts that take their constitutional obligations seriously should do what both common decency and the law demands: ban life without parole for felony murder.

June 23, 2024 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, June 10, 2024

Flagging challenge to Arizona's suspect application of Miller juve LWOP limis

Adam Liptak has this new piece at the New York Times detailing a pending Supreme Court challenge to how Arizona had dealt with Miller's Eighth Amendment limit on juve LWOP sentences. Here is the piece's full headline: "In Arizona, Life Sentences for Juveniles Test Supreme Court Precedents: The justices will soon decide whether to hear a case that could affect more than two dozen youths sentenced to die in prison." Here is an excerpt:

The new case involves Lonnie Bassett, who was convicted of two murders committed when he was 16. When he was sentenced in 2006, Arizona law did not give the judge the option of sentencing him to anything but life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a unanimous opinion last year, the Arizona Supreme Court did not dispute that. But it said an idiosyncratic feature of the state law, allowing judges to choose between “natural life” without the possibility of release in any fashion and life without parole but with the theoretical possibility of clemency from the governor, rendered it constitutional.

Rejecting the usual understanding of the governing precedent, the court said, “Miller and its progeny do not specifically require the availability of parole when sentencing a juvenile offender.”

Lawyers for Mr. Bassett asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, saying that his case could determine the fates of more than two dozen other juvenile offenders. The case, they wrote, “presents exceptionally significant questions about gamesmanship and the supremacy of federal law.”

June 10, 2024 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

"Can State Supreme Courts Preserve — or Expand — Rights?"

The title of this post is the title of this very lengthy new New Yorker piece by Eyal Press.  The subtitle highlights its themes: "With a lopsided conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, progressive activists are seeking legal opportunities in state constitutions."  Though covering lots of legal areas, the article discusses Eighth Amendment issues at various points.  Here is one excerpt of a piece worth reading in full:  

Between sessions at the N.Y.U. symposium [on state constitutional law], I went to a café to meet Kyle Barry, an advocate who hopes that a similar pattern might play out in the movement for criminal-justice reform.  Barry came to the conference from San Francisco, where he directs the State Law Research Initiative, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to limit extreme sentences and address inhumane prison conditions by strengthening state-constitutional rights.  Criminal-justice scholars have traditionally framed mass incarceration as a national phenomenon driven by such harsh federal legislation as the 1994 crime bill.  But, as the authors of a recent Iowa Law Review article note, “ninety percent of people confined in U.S. prisons are confined under state laws.”  Given this, the authors ask why state courts have been “missing from the debate” about how to curb excessive punishment regimes.

Barry’s organization hopes to address this gap.  He told me that state litigation was especially urgent because the Supreme Court has “completely abdicated” enforcing constitutional rights in the criminal-justice system, rubber-stamping extreme sentences that many other countries prohibit.  In most of Europe, he noted, the sentence of life without parole is unheard of.  In 2022, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that such sentences were cruel and unconstitutional for offenders of any age.  In the U.S., as of 2020, sixty thousand people were serving what Barry calls “death in prison” sentences — more than in the rest of the world combined.  Although the Miller ruling forbade mandatory impositions of life without parole for juveniles, it didn’t ban them altogether.  And a more recent Supreme Court opinion, Jones v. Mississippi, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, relieved judges of having to establish that a juvenile is “permanently incorrigible” before issuing such a sentence.

In a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post, the legal scholar John Pfaff argued that the Jones ruling demonstrated that America was willing “to throw lives away.”  Yet Barry told me that he felt optimistic about the possibilities for state reform, naming Michigan, in addition to Washington, as a place where a high court had recently extended Miller to young adults.  Lauren McLane, the law professor fighting to reduce the sentence of Christopher Hicks, joined us at the café, dressed in a gray University of Wyoming sweatshirt. McLane and Barry had first communicated a few weeks earlier, after she’d read comments that he’d made on a Listserv about Commonwealth v. Mattis, a case in which the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts banned life without parole for “emerging adults” — defined as anyone between eighteen and twenty-one.  The ruling, which was made in January, cited the ban on “cruel or unusual punishment” in the Massachusetts constitution, and also the principle that Eighth Amendment jurisprudence should be informed by “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” — a standard that the U.S. Supreme Court itself has endorsed.

June 4, 2024 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (21)

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Sentencing Project releases new report on "The Second Look Movement"

The Sentencing Project today released this new report fully titled "The Second Look Movement: A Review of the Nation’s Sentence Review Laws."  Here is the start of its executive summary:

Today, there are nearly two million people in American prisons and jails -- a 500% increase over the last 50 years. In 2020, over 200,000 people in U.S. prisons were serving life sentences -- more people than were in prison with any sentence in 1970.  Nearly one-third of people serving life sentences are 55 or older, amounting to over 60,000 people. People of color, particularly Black Americans, are represented at a higher rate among those serving lengthy and extreme sentences than among the total prison population.

Harsh sentencing policies, such as lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, have produced an aging prison population in the United States.  But research has established that lengthy sentences do not have a significant deterrent effect on crime and divert resources from effective public safety programs. Most criminal careers are under 10 years, and as people age, they usually desist from crime.  Existing parole systems are ineffective at curtailing excessive sentences in most states, due to their highly discretionary nature, lack of due process and oversight, and lack of objective consideration standards.  Consequently, legislators and the courts are looking to judicial review as a more effective means to reconsider an incarcerated person’s sentence in order to assess their fitness to reenter society.  A judicial review mechanism also provides the opportunity to evaluate whether sentences imposed decades ago remain just under current sentencing policies and public sentiment.

Legislation authorizing judges to review sentences after a person has served a lengthy period of time has been referred to as a second-look law and more colloquially as “sentence review.”

This report presents the evolution of the second look movement, which started with ensuring compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012) on the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole (“JLWOP”) sentences. This reform has more recently expanded to other types of sentences and populations, such as other excessive sentences imposed on youth, and emerging adults sentenced to life without parole (“LWOP”).  Currently, legislatures in 12 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have enacted a second look judicial review beyond opportunities provided to those with JLWOP sentences, and courts in at least 15 states determined that other lengthy sentences such as LWOP or term-of-years sentences were unconstitutional under Graham or Miller.

May 15, 2024 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Detailing some of the impacts and possible echoes of Mass ruling precluding LWOP for those under 21

Last month, as noted in this past post, a split Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Mattis, No. SJC-11693 (Mass. Jan. 11, 2024) (available here), ruled that article 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights precluded an LWOP sentence for offenses committed by persons under age 21.  This lengthy new Law360 piece, headlined "Mass. Ruling Seen As 'Sea Change' In Young Adult Sentencing," discusses the local and possible national impact of hte rule.  Here are excerpts:

[A]dvocates pushing to end sentences of life without parole for so-called emerging adults — those ages 18 through 20 — say they see a possible pathway to nationwide change following a recent ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court finding such sentences unconstitutional.

"This ruling is exceedingly important," [lawyer Jay] Blitzman said. "Obviously, in Massachusetts, where you have about 200 incarcerated individuals who now have the opportunity to have a parole hearing at least at some point in their life. But it is also incredibly significant in terms of the national landscape."...

[W]hile state high courts in Washington and Michigan have also recently ended the concept of mandatory life without parole for offenders under 21, those rulings, along with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Miller, have still left the door open for judges to make a determination at the time of sentencing that a parole opportunity should not be granted. "What Massachusetts did went beyond all that," Blitzman said. "It pushed the envelope."...

Advocates for abolishing life without parole for juveniles argue that recent scientific studies have shown that certain brain functions are not fully developed by the age of 18 and that the age of "peak offending" is around 19 to 20 years old. The brain tends to be fully matured and developed by around age 25, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Committing crimes — even violent ones — at that age is not necessarily indicative of a person who will continue to break the law the rest of their life, advocates and researchers say....

Robert Kinscherff, the executive director of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Law360 that most 16-year-olds are in a good position cognitively to offer medically informed consent, make reproductive decisions or participate in their own defense at trial. However, the situation changes under "hot cognition," Kinscherff said. "They remain more impulsive, more reckless, less likely to consider options and more likely to respond to the immediacy of perceived rewards rather than to take a long-term view," he said. "And they remain vulnerable to peer influence, especially if they are in the physical presence of peers."...

In the weeks since the Mattis decision, Kinscherff says he has heard from attorneys and advocates around the country who are trying to figure out how to incorporate the landmark ruling and the underlying arguments into their own advocacy....

Martin Healey, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bar Association, called the Mattis ruling a "sea change."... "I definitely think it is going to have a wide, sweeping effect," Healey said. "It's going to happen incrementally, but surely it will occur, and I think you'll see various states react to it, some soon and others following suit as the years go on."

Prior related posts:

February 24, 2024 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Split Massachusetts top court rules "life without parole for emerging adults" violates state constitution

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today handed down a very legnthy ruling, reflecting a 4-to-3 vote among the justices, addressing a constitutional challenge to LWOP sentencing imposed on persons under 21 at the time of thier offense. The ruling of the majoirty in Commonwealth v. Mattis, No. SJC-11693 (Mass. Jan. 11, 2024) (available here), gets started this way:

When it comes to determining whether a punishment is constitutional under either the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution or art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, youth matters.  See, e.g., Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005); Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 466 Mass. 655 (2013) (Diatchenko I), S.C., 471 Mass. 12 (2015).  In Miller, supra at 465, 476, the United States Supreme Court struck down mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles based in part on the "mitigating qualities of youth."  Approximately one and one-half years later, this court went further than Miller and concluded that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole in any circumstance would violate art. 26.  See Diatchenko I, supra at 669-670.

The defendant, Sheldon Mattis, was convicted of murder in the first degree, among other charges, and was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole, see G. L. c. 265, § 2 (a). Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 754-756 (2020).  On appeal, he challenged the constitutionality of his sentence as applied to him. He argued that because he was eighteen years old at the time of the murder, he is entitled to the same protection as juvenile offenders (i.e., those from fourteen to seventeen years of age) convicted of murder in the first degree, who receive a term of life with the possibility of parole. See G. L. c. 265, § 2 (b).

Here, we consider whether our holding in Diatchenko I should be extended to apply to emerging adults, that is, those who were eighteen, nineteen, and twenty years of age when they committed the crime.  Based on precedent and contemporary standards of decency in the Commonwealth and elsewhere, we conclude that the answer is yes.

There are a number of concurrences and dissents, and here are a few paragraphs paragraph from the start of the lead dissent authored by Justice Jowy:

I cannot say that society, through its elected officials, may not express its revulsion of the crime of murder in the first degree by imposing a punishment of life without the possibility of parole on adults without offending our Declaration of Rights.  Therefore, I respectfully dissent....

Our assessment under art. 26 is not whether the mandatory imposition of life without the possibility of parole for individuals from eighteen to twenty-one is, in our view, wise, prudent, or even best for society.  Our inquiry is limited to whether the punishment, chosen by the Legislature, is so disproportionate that it reaches the level of cruel or unusual. See Diatchenko I, 466 Mass. at 669.  Because, under our contemporary standards of decency and precedent, the mandatory imposition of life without the possibility of parole on adults who commit murder in the first degree when they are from eighteen to twenty-one is not "so disproportionate" that "it 'shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity,'" id., quoting Cepulonis, 384 Mass. at 497, the sentence does not violate art. 26's proscription against cruel or unusual punishment. It therefore must be upheld.

January 11, 2024 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Thorough account of sentencing of Michigan school shooter Ethan Crumbley to LWOP

Constitutional law now requires a juveline murderer can be sentenced to life without parole "only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment."  Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307, 1311 (2021).  Last week in Michigan brought these procedural realities into sharp relief in the sentencing of a high-profile school shooter.  This Detroit Free Press article provides a very lengthy and quite wrenching account of the sentencing and victim statements. Here are a few excerpts focused on some legal particulars:

In the end, whatever mental illness Ethan Crumbley may have, the judge concluded it did not interfere with the teen's ability to plan and carry out the deadliest school shooting in Michigan's history.

Rather, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwame Rowe said in locking up the teenage killer forever, Crumbley has an obsession with violence, planned the massacre for weeks in advance, carried it out — and chose to stay alive so that he could witness the suffering and enjoy the notoriety he desired.

Mental illness, the judge noted, didn't interfere with any of that. “This started with him asking for a better gun to carry out the school shooting," Rowe said of the killer, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole Friday for the 2021 massacre that killed four Oxford High School students and injured seven others, including a teacher.

“He could have changed his mind (after shooting his first victim)," Rowe said in handing down the sentence. “But he didn’t. He continued to walk through the school picking and choosing who was going to die.”...

Crumbley's punishment was handed down after a day of gut-wrenching statements from grieving parents, victims who survived and traumatized students whose sense of security has forever been shattered, including a 16-year-old student who looked at the killer in court and said: "Today I want you to look at me.” Crumbley, who kept his head down nearly the entire hearing, briefly glanced up to look at the girl....

In pushing for the harshest punishment possible, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald argued Crumbley's crimes triggered a tsunami of trauma for scores of students, parents and an entire community. All of it could have been avoided, she said, but the teen chose to keep his plan a secret. "He could have disclosed that he had a gun and was planning to shoot up his school, but he did not," McDonald said.

"Today was about victims. We heard their voices," the prosecutor said. But the trauma was far more severe than what was heard in court, she said, noting the parents suffered far more than what they discussed Friday....

Crumbley pleaded guilty to murder and terrorism charges last year, admitting he planned and carried out the shooting, and meant to cause panic and fear in the school that day. In September, Rowe determined that Crumbley was eligible for a sentence of life without parole following a lengthy and emotional Miller hearing, a mandatory proceeding that helps judges decide whether juveniles should spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Meanwhile, his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, continue to maintain their innocence in the unprecedented case as the first parents in America charged in a mass school shooting. They are accused of ignoring their son's mental health troubles and buying him a gun instead of getting him help — the same gun he used in the November 2021 massacre.

The parents maintain they had no way of knowing their son would shoot up his school, and that the gun was safely stored. They will face separate trials in January on involuntary manslaughter charges.

December 10, 2023 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Deep dive into stores of juvenile LWOP sentences and their review

The New York Times has this lengthy new feature on extreme sentencing of juvenile offenders, with a focus particularly on happenings in Philadelphia.  I recommend the full article, which is headlined "Sentenced to Life as Boys, They Made Their Case for Release."  Here are some excerpts that highlight some of the data reported within broader story-telling:

Philadelphia lawyer named Bradley Bridge ... began the enormous undertaking of compiling a list of all the prisoners in Pennsylvania who were sentenced to life as minors. No one in the state had ever kept track of this group, who came to be called “juvenile lifers” in the courts and “child lifers” by some of the inmates themselves.

He expected the list to be long. He didn’t expect it to eventually include more than 500 names, nearly one-fifth of the more than 2,800 child lifers in the country. More than 300 of them had come through Philadelphia’s system, making a city with less than 1 percent of the country’s population responsible for more than 10 percent of all children sentenced to life in prison without parole in the United States. No other city compared.  Even more glaring: More than 80 percent of Philadelphia’s child lifers were Black. Nationally, that figure was roughly 60 percent....

In 2008, the Equal Justice Initiative found 73 children who had been given sentences of life without parole when they were 13 and 14 years old.  And all of the people who received those sentences for crimes other than homicide were children of color. “It just said something about the way in which race was a proxy for a presumption of dangerousness, this presumption of irredeemability,”[Bryan] Stevenson said....

The Supreme Court’s rulings in Miller and Montgomery marked an important rethinking of culpability when it comes to children who commit the most serious crimes.  But the practical implications of the rulings were limited: the court hadn’t abolished all life without parole sentences for children — only ones where state laws made the sentences mandatory. And while child lifers now had a chance to make a case for their release, prosecutors could still seek new life sentences.  In other states with high numbers of child lifers, including Michigan and Louisiana, as well as some parts of Pennsylvania, that’s just what they did.

Of the more than 300 child lifers who became eligible for resentencing in Philadelphia in 2016, all but about a dozen have been resentenced, and more than 220 have been released, the majority of them on lifetime parole.  That’s nearly a quarter of the roughly 1,000 total child lifers who have been released across the country.  These numbers make Philadelphia, once an outlier in imprisoning minors for life, now an outlier in letting them go.  By 2020, the city had resentenced more child lifers than Michigan and Louisiana combined. What set the city apart, said Mr. Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, was not just the buy-in from local officials and public defenders, but also the community of child lifers who became their own best argument for release....

Since the Supreme Court decisions, more than half of all states have outlawed life without parole sentences for children altogether, reducing the number of child lifers left in the country to fewer than 600, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national nonprofit.  Mr. Stevenson’s organization is now working to raise the minimum age at which children can be tried as adults in 11 states, including Pennsylvania, where there is no age floor.  Other states are considering abolishing mandatory life without parole sentences for people under 21.

August 16, 2023 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Tennessee Supreme Court finds state's uniquely harsh automatic life sentences unconstitutional for juvenile offenders

On Friday of last week, as summarized at this court webpage, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a set of notable opinions addressing the constitutionality of the state's automatic life sentencing scheme for juveniles.  Here is, from the court website, links to: "the court's opinion in Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee and joined by Special Justice William C. Koch, Jr., the separate opinion concurring in the judgment authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the dissenting opinion authored by Justice Jeff Bivins and joined by Chief Justice Roger Page."  Together, all the opinions run more than 50+ dense pages; they are all worth a read and cannot be easily summarized in a blog post.  But I can provide a poor-man's account (and also link to this local press coverage).

As explained in these opinions, Tennessee law requires a minimum term of 51 years in prison before parole consideration for murderers even for juveniles.  As the opinion for the court explains:  "Compared to the other forty-nine states, Tennessee is a clear outlier in its sentencing of juvenile homicide offenders.  So much so that Tennessee’s life sentence when automatically imposed on a juvenile is the harshest of any sentence in the country.  No one, including the dissent, disputes that a juvenile offender serving a life sentence in Tennessee is incarcerated longer than juvenile offenders serving life sentences in other states."

And so, decides the majority:

Tennessee is out of step with the rest of the country in the severity of sentences imposed on juvenile homicide offenders.  Automatically imposing a fifty-one-year-minimum life sentence on a juvenile offender without regard to the juvenile’s age and attendant circumstances can, for some juveniles, offend contemporary standards of decency....

Tennessee’s automatic life sentence when imposed on juvenile homicide offenders is an outlier when compared with the other forty-nine states, it lacks individualized sentencing which serves as a bulwark against disproportionate punishment, and it goes beyond what is necessary to accomplish legitimate penological objectives.  For these reasons, we hold that Tennessee’s automatic life sentence with a minimum of fifty-one years when imposed on juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment.

As for the remedy:

We exercise judicial restraint when remedying the unconstitutionality of the current statutory scheme for sentencing juvenile homicide offenders.  Rather than creating a new sentencing scheme or resentencing Mr. Booker, we apply the sentencing policy adopted by the General Assembly in its previous enactment of section 40-35-501.... Under this unrepealed statute, Mr. Booker remains sentenced to a sixty-year prison term and is eligible for, although not guaranteed, supervised release on parole after serving between twenty-five and thirty-six years.  Thus, at the appropriate time, Mr. Booker will receive an individualized parole hearing in which his age, rehabilitation, and other circumstances will be considered.

The dissenting opinion starts this way:

I respectfully dissent from the result reached by a majority of the Court today.  Quite frankly, I find the policy adopted as a result of the plurality opinion of Justice Lee and the concurring opinion of Justice Kirby to be sound.  However, it is just that.  It is a policy decision by which the majority today has pushed aside appropriate confines of judicial restraint and applied an evolving standards of decency/independent judgment analysis that impermissibly moves the Court into an area reserved to the legislative branch under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions.

November 20, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Local prosecutor seeking LWOP sentence for Michigan school shooter Ethan Crumbley

As reported in this local article, "Oakland County prosecutors plan to seek a life sentence without the chance of parole for the teenage boy who killed four classmates and injured a teacher and six other students at Oxford High School last year."  Here is more:

Ethan Crumbley, 16, pleaded guilty Oct. 24 to terrorism causing death, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of attempted murder and 12 counts of felony firearm. Crumbley killed Oxford students Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Shilling.

The Oakland County Prosecutor's Office filed a motion Monday notifying the court that it planned to seek a life without parole sentence. "As we previously stated, there have been no plea bargains, no charge reductions, and no sentence agreements," David Williams, Oakland County's chief assistant prosecutor, said Tuesday in a statement. "The shooter has been offered and promised nothing. The motion filed yesterday is a formal declaration of our intent to seek the maximum possible sentence in this case."

Paulette Michel Loftin, Crumbley’s lawyer, said in October before Crumbley entered his plea that he was remorseful and wanted to accept accountability and do the right thing. Pleading guilty was his idea, she said. Crumbley was 15 years old at the time of the shooting on Nov. 30, 2021....

A first-degree murder conviction usually comes with an automatic life without parole sentence, but teenagers are entitled to a hearing where their attorneys can argue for a lighter sentence and present mitigating testimony and evidence about their client's life.  Prosecutors can also put on a case for why their requested sentence is warranted. This hearing is held because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. The sentencing process is scheduled to start in February.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald has said that "every person who was in Oxford High School that day will have a chance, if they want to, to speak in their own words about how this has affected them."

Ethan's parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are charged with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors accused them of "gross negligence" leading up to the murders. They face up to 15 years in prison.

As detialed in this post, just a few months ago the Michigan Supreme Court issued a series of rulings addressing, and generally restricting, when and how juveniles convicted of homicide can receive sentences of life with or without parole.  I would expect that a mass shooting at a school would still be a prime case for a discretionary LWOP sentencing, but Crumbley’s relatively young age and his apparent remorsefulness could open up the possibility of a lesser sentence.

Prior related post:

November 15, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Sunday, October 23, 2022

"A Second Look for Children Sentenced to Die in Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece now available via SSRN authored by Kathryn Miller.  Here is its abstract:

Scholars have championed “second look” statutes as a decarceral tool.  Second look statutes allow certain incarcerated people to seek resentencing after having served a portion of their sentences.  This Essay weighs the advantages and disadvantages of these statutes as applied to children sentenced to die in prison and argues that focusing on this small, discrete group may be a digestible entry point for more conservative states who fear widespread resentencing.  Moreover, because early data indicates that children convicted of homicide and released as adults have very low recidivism rates, second look beneficiaries are likely to pose little threat to public safety.  While resentencing and even releasing these individuals would not directly result in mass decarceration, it would serve as a litmus test for expanding second look statutes to adults convicted of violent crimes — the very group for whom meaningful decarceral efforts must ultimately be aimed.

The Essay also argues that second look legislation has the potential to redress two specific sentencing problems common to cases involving children: the inability to accurately assess an individual’s capacity for change and racially discriminatory sentencing outcomes.  To redress these problems, and to avoid reflexive impositions of original sentences, this Essay recommends three critical additions to juvenile second look statutes: automatic eligibility for resentencing at age twenty-five, jury resentencing, and inadmissibility of the defendant’s original sentence.

October 23, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 09, 2022

Split Washington Supreme Court revisits its limits on long prison terms for juvenile offenders

As explained in this AP article, a "year after saying virtual life sentences are unconstitutional for teenage killers, the Washington Supreme Court changed course Thursday in a split ruling that drew irate dissents from four justices.  The 5-4 decision was a striking departure for a court that in recent years has steadily embraced research showing that juveniles’ brain development typically makes them less culpable than adults, and which has made significant efforts to undo the impact of racial bias in the criminal justice system."  The majority opinion in Washington v. Anderson, No. 97890-5 (Wash. Sept. 8, 2028) (available here), starts this way:

Tonelli Anderson is serving a 61-year sentence for two first degree murders he committed at age 17. Anderson asks us to hold that his sentence is unconstitutionally cruel in violation of article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution.  He argues that this court’s recent decision in State v. Haag announced a bright line rule that no juvenile offender can ever receive a sentence of 46 years or longer — no matter how serious or numerous their crimes may be — and so his sentence is unconstitutional because it is longer than 46 years.  We disagree with Anderson’s interpretation of Haag.

Haag is properly understood as announcing that article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution limits the category of juvenile offenders who can receive de facto life without parole (LWOP) sentences, the harshest punishments possible for juvenile offenders under Washington law.  In Haag, we determined that a particular juvenile offender could not receive such a harsh punishment because his crime reflected youthful immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. But when, as here, a juvenile offender’s crimes do not reflect those mitigating qualities of youth, Washington’s constitution does not bar a de facto LWOP sentence.

The King County Superior Court properly considered all of Anderson’s evidence regarding the mitigating qualities of his youth and his rehabilitation while in prison.  In light of that evidence and the trial record, the court appropriately determined that Anderson’s crimes do not reflect youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences. Article I, section 14 of Washington’s constitution therefore does not prohibit Anderson’s 61-year sentence. We affirm.

A dissent by Chief Justice Gonzalez starts this way:

Even if I could join the majority’s repudiation of our recent constitutional jurisprudence, I could not join it in affirming the trial court’s resentencing decision here. The resentencing judge abused her discretion by failing to meaningfully consider how juveniles are different from adults, by failing to meaningfully consider how those differences applied to Tonelli Anderson, by failing to consider whether Anderson’s case was one of the few where a life without parole sentence is constitutionally permissible, by failing to give meaningful weight to the significant evidence that Tonelli Anderson had rehabilitated himself while in prison, and by improperly allocating the burden of proof to him at resentencing. For all these reasons, I respectfully dissent.

Another dissent from Justice Yu starts this way:

I agree with the dissent that Tonelli Anderson is entitled to resentencing pursuant to this court’s precedent, which recognizes “that life is more than just life expectancy and that a juvenile must have a meaningful opportunity to rejoin society after leaving prison.” State v. Haag, 198 Wn.2d 309, 328, 495 P.3d 241 (2021). I write separately to elaborate on the ways in which the majority undermines our precedent, ignores fundamental principles of stare decisis, and disregards this court’s own call to “recognize the role we have played in devaluing [B]lack lives.” Letter from Wash. State Sup. Ct. to Members of Judiciary & Legal Cmty. at 1 (June 4, 2020), https://www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20 News/Judiciary%20Legal%20Community%20SIGNED%20060420.pdf [https://perma.cc/QNT4-H5P7]. Today’s decision is contrary to both longestablished principles of law and newly recognized principles of justice. I therefore respectfully concur in the dissent.

September 9, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

En banc Eight Circuit reverses ruling that Missouri must improve its parole process to comply with Miller

In this post from three years ago, I noted a federal district court ruling finding that the Missouri's parole policies and practices failed to give juveniles subject to life terms a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as required by Eighth Amendment doctrines.  An in this post last year, I noted that a split Eighth Circuit panel upheld the bulk of this ruling over a dissent by Judge Colloton.  Yesterday, Judge Colloton got to turn the tables by writing a new majority opinion for the en banc Eighth Circuit that starts this way:

In 2016, in light of Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Eighth Amendment’s proscription on cruel and unusual punishment, the Missouri legislature modified state law regarding parole. The legislature enacted a statute permitting a juvenile homicide offender to petition for parole if he had been sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without parole. A class of inmates who were juvenile offenders sued the state officials responsible for administering the parole process.  The inmates alleged that the policies and practices of the parole officials violated their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and to due process of law under the federal and Missouri constitutions. The district court determined that the parole review practices were constitutionally deficient, and ordered the State to implement an elaborate remedial plan. The State appeals, and we conclude that there is no constitutional violation. We therefore reverse the judgment of the district court.

Here is a key concluding passage from the majority opinion:

In sum, the Supreme Court’s juvenile-specific jurisprudence under the Eighth Amendment does not warrant declaring a constitutional violation and imposing on the State the elaborate set of parole procedures endorsed by the district court.  A requirement to allow “some meaningful opportunity” for release, even if applicable to these juvenile homicide offenders, is satisfied here.  The juvenile homicide offenders in Missouri received more process than offenders under the regular parole process: they presented more documentary evidence than adult offenders, received longer hearings than the average parole hearing, and were entitled to consideration of statutory factors that apply only to juveniles who were formerly sentenced to life without parole.  Of course, a “meaningful opportunity” does not imply that every juvenile homicide offender must be released immediately upon eligibility for parole.  We do not believe the Court intended through its decisions in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery to judicialize the parole process in the manner urged by the inmates.

The dissent is authored by Judge Kelly and joined by Chief Judge Smith and Judge Arnold and it concludes this way:

Missouri’s parole policies and practices, when considered in combination as implemented, work to deprive Plaintiffs of their Eighth Amendment right to a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.  See Miller, 567 U.S. at 479. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that juvenile offenders are “constitutionally different” than adult offenders, id. at 471, and “should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential,” Graham, 560 U.S. at 79.  Because the parole review process in place under SB 590 fails to adequately “ensure[] that juveniles whose crimes reflect[] only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence,” Montgomery, 577 U.S. at 212, it violates the Eighth Amendment.

Prior related posts:

August 31, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 29, 2022

DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo makes still more law as top Maryland court says he must be resentenced in light of Miller

Though Lee Boyd Malvo is now 37 years old and serving a life prison term in Virginia, he was only 17 years old when he (with John Allen Muhammad) killed multiple people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington over a few weeks in 2002.  Malvo's juvenile status at the time of his awful crimes means that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting juvenile LWOP sentencing has been applicable to him.

The Supreme Court had granted cert to considering Malvo's Virginia sentencing, until Virginia changed its sentencing law and mooted that case.  And late last week, as reported in this AP article, Malvo's Maryland sentencing generated a notable ruling:

Maryland’s highest court has ruled that Washington, D.C.-area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo must be resentenced, because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to constitutional protections for juveniles made after Malvo was sentenced to six life sentences without the possibility of parole

In its 4-3 ruling, however, the Maryland Court of Appeals said it’s very unlikely Malvo would ever be released from custody, because he is also serving separate life sentences for murders in Virginia.

“As a practical matter, this may be an academic question in Mr. Malvo’s case, as he would first have to be granted parole in Virginia before his consecutive life sentences in Maryland even begin,” Judge Robert McDonald wrote in the majority opinion released Friday.

McDonald wrote that it’s ultimately not up to the Court of Appeals to decide the appropriate sentence for Malvo, or whether he should ever be released from his Maryland sentences.

“We hold only that the Eighth Amendment requires that he receive a new sentencing hearing at which the sentencing court, now cognizant of the principles elucidated by the Supreme Court, is able to consider whether or not he is constitutionally eligible for life without parole under those decisions,” McDonald wrote....

Judges Jonathan Biran, Brynja Booth and Joseph Getty joined McDonald in the majority. Judges Shirley Watts, Michele Hotten and Steven Gould dissented.  Watts wrote that the sentencing court took Malvo’s status as a juvenile into account.

“The record demonstrates that Mr. Malvo received a personalized sentencing procedure at which his youth and its attendant characteristics were considered, and the circuit court was aware that it had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence,” Watts wrote.

The full 108-page opinion in Malvo v. Maryland is available at this link.

August 29, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 29, 2022

Via multiple rulings, Michigan Supreme Court places new restrictions on when juveniles can receive life sentences

The Michigan Supreme Court yesterday issued five(!) rulings addressing, and generally restricting, whether, when, and how juveniles convicted of homicide can receive sentences of life with or without parole.  Some of the most notable of the rulings are discussed in these press pieces that have headlines providing a basic summary:

"Mich. court bars automatic life sentences for 18-year-olds"

"State Supreme Court rules life with parole for juveniles who commit 2nd-degree murder violates MI Constitution"

"Michigan high court extends juvenile age for first-degree murder sentences; Ruling in Macomb County case also places burden on prosecutors for juvenile life sentences"

Here are links to all of the Michigan Supreme Court rulings, all of which are quite lengthy and divided:

154994, People v Robert Taylor 7/28/2022

162425, People v Montez Stovall 7/28/2022

162086, People v Kemo Parks 7/28/2022

157738 & 158695, People v Demariol Boykin, People v Tyler Tate 7/28/2022

Because Michigan has long had a significant juvenile lifer population, I suspect these rulings can and will lead to a notable number of resentencing in the state.  I would be eager to hear from Michigan experts about just how consequential these rulings might prove to be.

UPDATE:  Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing Project has this new tweet noting part of the likely impact of these state rulings:

Michigan #LWOP ban for 18 yr olds should ease the excessive sentences imposed on ~300 people sentenced for first and second degree murder.

July 29, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 21, 2022

"Cruel and Unusual Youth Confinement"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Cara Drinan and now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In a series of cases known as the Miller trilogy, the Supreme Court recognized that children are both less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation than adults, and that those differences must be taken into consideration at sentencing.  Relying on the principle that kids are different for constitutional purposes, the Court abolished capital punishment for minors and significantly limited the extent to which minors can be subject to life-without-parole (“LWOP”) terms.  Equally important, the Miller trilogy was predicated on the concept of inherent human dignity, and it recognized the youthful prisoner’s need for “hope” and “reconciliation with society.”  While scholars have grappled with the implementation of these cases for nearly a decade, there has been no comprehensive analysis of what these cases mean for conditions of confinement.  That is, if children are different for constitutional purposes at the moment of sentencing, surely, they are still different when transported to a correctional facility and confined by the state. This Paper seeks to close that gap in the literature by making two specific contributions: first, by arguing that the Court’s juvenile sentencing decisions impose affirmative obligations upon states regarding youth conditions of confinement; and second, by articulating a standard for measuring when youth conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment.  As long as the United States persists in its extreme juvenile sentencing practices, the project of articulating what constitutes cruel and unusual youth confinement remains crucial.

July 21, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Split North Carolina Supreme Court rulings declares sentences excluding parole for over 40 years unconstitutional for juveniles

Last week, as reported in this local article, the Supreme Court of North Carolina issues two notable opinions placing a notable limit on sentences for juvenile offenders.  Here are the basics:

Juveniles convicted of the most violent crimes in North Carolina cannot spend more than 40 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole.  The N.C. Supreme Court made that determination Friday in a pair of 4-3 decisions.  The court’s four Democratic justices ruled in favor of the defendants in both cases.  The three Republican justices dissented.

In State v. Conner, Democratic justices determined that a 15-year-old convicted of rape and murder faced an excessive prison sentence.

According to Justice Michael Morgan’s majority opinion, Riley Dawson Conner pleaded guilty to raping his aunt outside her home in 2016, then killing her “with blows from a shovel.” He then left her dead body in a wooded area near her home.

Under the original consecutive sentences on rape and murder charges, Conner would have reached the age of 60 before having the chance to seek parole. Such a lengthy sentence would violate federal court precedents involving juvenile offenders, Morgan argued. Instead he and his fellow Democratic justices set a new 40-year maximum prison sentence before a juvenile offender would become eligible for parole....

Republican Justice Phil Berger Jr. rejected the argument. He accused Democratic justices of writing the 40-year maximum sentence into law.  “[T]he majority darts into the legislative lane, usurping legislative authority by enacting its new law simply because they find this result ‘desirable’ for violent juveniles,” Berger wrote in dissent....

Democratic and Republican justices also split in State v. Kelliher.  As with the Conner case, the court’s majority ruled that defendant James Ryan Kelliher should serve no more than 40 years in prison for murders committed when he was 17.

All of the opinions in the Connor and Kelliher cases make for interesting reads. From a quick review, I was struck by the fact that the Connor ruling suggests that both the US and North Carolina constitutions supported the 40-year cap announced by the court. But the Kelliher ruling more expressly relies on the NC constitution as revealed in this paragraph from near the start of the opinion:

After careful review, we hold that it violates both the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution to sentence a juvenile homicide offender who has been determined to be “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable” to life without parole.  Furthermore, we conclude that any sentence or combination of sentences which, considered together, requires a juvenile offender to serve more than forty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole is a de facto sentence of life without parole within the meaning of article I, section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution because it deprives the juvenile of a genuine opportunity to demonstrate he or she has been rehabilitated and to establish a meaningful life outside of prison.  Thus, Kelliher’s sentence, which requires him to serve fifty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole, is a de facto sentence of life without parole under article I, section 27.  Because the trial court affirmatively found that Kelliher was “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable,” he could not constitutionally receive this sentence.

June 22, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Iowa Supreme Court refuses to extend Eighth Amendment juve mandatory LWOP prohibition to murder committed days after 18th birthday

As reported in this Des Moines Register article, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an interesting ruling refusing to extend an Eighth Amendment right protecting juvenile murderers. Here are the basics:

Two Iowans who were sentenced to life in prison for murders committed when they were teenagers must stay incarcerated, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday. Lawyers for the Des Moines men claimed they should not have been sentenced to adult standards because the crimes were committed when they were 18 and 19 years old. Two Iowa Supreme Court decisions rejected claims that sentencing very young adults to adult sentences constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Building on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the state court has previously held that youth who commit crimes before they turn 18, even first-degree murder, cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole. But once someone turns 18, Friday's rulings held, they face the full penalties prescribed by law.

The two cases both involve Des Moines men who've been fighting for decades to overturn their convictions and sentences for murder. In one case, the defendant was only five days past his 18th birthday at the time of the offense. James Dorsey, who was convicted of the 1984 murder of Juanita Weaver during a home invasion, argued that modern medical and social science shows the brain does not fully mature until age 25.

Justice Christopher McDonald, who wrote both majority opinions, acknowledges that the 18th birthday might be an arbitrary place to draw a line, but said a line must be drawn somewhere. He noted many areas outside criminal law where turning 18 triggers new rights and responsibilities....

In the second case, Fernando Sandoval was 19 in 2004 when he shot and killed two men during a fight outside a Des Moines bar. He was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison, and has brought multiple unsuccessful appeals and petitions for postconviction relief....

The only dissenter in both cases was Justice Brent Appel, the sole Democratic appointee on the court. Appel wrote in Dorsey's case that he would not "simply extend the categorical rule ... prohibiting life-without-possibility-of-parole sentences to young adults," but instead that such cases should be treated as other states treat death sentences, requiring an "individualized assessment" by the court whether the defendant truly merits lifelong detention....

Iowa law mandates life without parole for anyone convicted of first-degree murder, except for juveniles, who may be eligible for parole.

The full ruling in Dorsey v, Iowa, No. 19–1917 (Iowa June 10, 2022), is available at this link and here is how the majority opinion begins:

Petitioner James Dorsey shot and killed a woman when he was eighteen years and five days old. He was found guilty of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Dorsey contends this sentence violates his state constitutional right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.” Iowa Const. art. I, § 17.  He argues the state constitution prohibits imposing a mandatory punishment on a young adult offender and instead requires the district court to hold an individualized sentencing hearing before imposing any sentence. He further argues his life sentence without the possibility of parole is grossly disproportionate to the crime. For the reasons expressed below, we affirm Dorsey’s sentence.

Here is how the lengthy dissent by Judge Appel wraps up:

While an offender under the age of eighteen may be entitled to a categorical exclusion from a life-without-possibility-of-parole sentence, I would hold that an individual older than eighteen might be subject to life without possibility of parole provided that the state can make the necessary showing of incorrigibility to support the sentence.

Because of the confluence of the mitigating factors of youth and the harshness of the penalty, I would apply a different version of the gross proportionality test than has traditionally been applied under the federal caselaw. Instead, in the context of a youthful offender facing life without possibility of parole, the state should be required to show that the individual offender is so incorrigible that even considering a parole-based release at a later date is out of the question.  This heightened sense of proportionality is necessary because of the potent combination of potential mitigating factors and the irreversible and severe nature of the underlying punishment.  This extension of individualized determinations is a small but necessary evolution of our current law.

June 12, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Reviewing the application of Miller and juvenile LWOP in the federal system

This AP story, headlined "Juvenile lifer seeks reprieve amid broader push for leniency," focuses on one high-profile juvenile lifer case while also discussing some of the other realities of juve LWOP in the federal system since the Supreme Court's major Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama a decade ago.  Here are some excerpts from a lengthy piece worth reading in full:

Shortly after Riley Briones Jr. arrived in federal prison, he cut his long, braided hair in a symbolic death of his old self. As a leader of a violent gang and just shy of 18, Briones drove the getaway car in a robbery turned deadly on the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community outside Phoenix in 1994. He was convicted of murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

In prison, he has been baptized a Christian, ministers to other inmates who call him Brother Briones, got his GED and has a spotless disciplinary record, his attorneys say in their latest bid to get the now 45-year-old’s sentence cut short. “He’s clearly on the side of the line where he should be walking free,” said his attorney, Easha Anand.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for that possibility with a 2012 ruling that said only the rare, irredeemable juvenile offender should serve life in prison. Over the past decade, most of the 39 defendants in federal cases who received that sentence have gotten a reprieve and are serving far fewer years behind bars. Meanwhile, more than 60 legal experts and scholars have asked the federal government to cap sentences for juvenile offenders at 30 years, create a committee to review life sentences in the future and reconsider its stance in Briones’ case.

But the move toward greater leniency has been gradual and not without resistance. Briones is among those whose life sentences have been upheld in recent years, though he still has another chance. Prosecutors in his case have opposed a reduced term. They argue despite Briones’ improvements, he minimized his role in the gang and its crimes that terrorized Salt River amid an explosion of gang violence on Native American reservations in the 1990s....

Briones’ case became eligible for resentencing after the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama.  It was part of a series of cases in which the court found minors should be treated differently from adults, partly because of a lack of maturity.  The court previously eliminated the death penalty for juveniles and barred life-without-parole sentences for juveniles except in cases of murder.  A handful of the defendants in the 39 federal cases — most of whom are minorities — have been released from prison.

The Feb. 17 letter seeking reform from the Justice Department pointed to statistics that show the median sentence for adults convicted of murder in the federal system is 20 years — nearly half the median for the juvenile offenders.  “Taking a life is really, really serious, and I don’t belittle that at all,” said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center, one of the signatories.  “But a full life in prison when you’re a juvenile and you’re talking about 40, 50, 60 years in prison is exceedingly excessive probably in almost every case and not consistent with typical sentences for homicides, even adults.”...

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights group, said changes in the law that continually allow juvenile offenders to get another shot at freedom are damaging for the families, communities and the criminal justice system. “Some of these crimes are just very horrible, and the impacts on the families are substantial, and they never go away,” said the group’s president, Michael Rushford.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth has long argued the changes a person makes once they’ve entered prison should matter, and juveniles offenders should be able to live as adults outside prison walls.  “If the facts of the crime are always going to be the overpowering force, then Miller isn’t going to be meaningfully interpreted to outweigh all this positive growth,” said Rebecca Turner, who tracks the federal cases for the group.

The federal court in Arizona has resentenced more of the juvenile offenders to life in prison than any other state. Texas has two juvenile offenders who are serving life but weren’t able to be resentenced because of how courts interpreted Miller v. Alabama. South Carolina resentenced one inmate to life.  All three federal cases in Arizona were from Native American reservations, where the federal government has jurisdiction when the suspect, victim or both are Native American for a set of major crimes, including homicide. The penalties, in general, are stricter than if the crimes happened off the reservation and the cases ended up in state court.

April 12, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 11, 2022

North Carolina Gov, following recommendation of state Juvenile Sentence Review Board, commutes sentence of three convicted of murder as teens

As detailed in this North Carolina Gov press release, "Governor Cooper has commuted the sentences of three people who were convicted for crimes committed when they were teenagers. The commutations follow an intensive review of their cases, including the length of their sentences, their records in prison, and their readiness to succeed outside of prison." Here is more from the press release (with links from the original):

The commutations are the first recommended to the Governor by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board which he established by Executive Order last year. The commutation applications were thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel and the Governor.  These commutations end prison sentences on time served.

The creation of the Review Board followed the change in North Carolina law which raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds, making North Carolina the last state in the nation to do so.  Studies of brain development and psychology show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds and behavior, and state and federal law treat children differently from adults for the purpose of sentencing.

The Review Board was also part of a series of recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) that has worked to rectify racial disparities in the criminal justice system. More than 80 percent of people committed to North Carolina prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles are people of color.

“North Carolina law continues to change to recognize that science is even more clear about immature brain development and decision making in younger people,” Cooper said. “As people become adults, they can change, turn their lives around, and engage as productive members of society.”

The three people whose sentences were commuted are:

  • April Leigh Barber, 46, who has served 30 years in prison for her role at age 15 in the murders of her grandparents, Lillie and Aaron Barber, in Wilkes County. While incarcerated, Ms. Barber has been consistently employed and has participated in significant programming, including earning her G.E.D. and paralegal certificate. Link to commutation.
  • Joshua McKay, 37, who has served 20 years in prison for the murder at age 17 of Mary Catherine Young in Richmond County. While incarcerated, Mr. McKay has been consistently employed, including as a carpenter and welder. Mr. McKay’s projected release date absent this commutation would have been in November 2022. Link to commutation.
  • Anthony Willis, 42, who has served 26 years in prison for the murder at age 16 of Benjamin Franklin Miller in Cumberland County. While incarcerated, Mr. Willis has been consistently employed and has completed five college degrees. Link to commutation.

The three people will be subject to post-release supervision by Community Corrections at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to help them succeed and avoid missteps when they return to their communities.  “Most of the individuals who enter prisons will return to their communities one day. Providing high quality, evidenced based treatment and programming is a top priority for our prison system,” said Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe. “These commutations should inspire individuals who are incarcerated to use all available resources to better themselves and prepare for a successful return to society.”

The Review Board continues to review petitions from those who were incarcerated for crimes committed as juveniles, and looks at many factors in its review, including rehabilitation and maturity demonstrated by the individual, record of education or other work while incarcerated, record of good behavior or infractions, input from the victim or members of the victim’s family, and more.

March 11, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Notable new report on juve LWOP reviews "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers"

This morning I received this email from the folks at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth that highlighting this new report "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers." The full short report is worth a full read, and the emails provides this brief accounting of the report's coverage:

Six years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, making Miller v. Alabama’s requirement that judges consider the mitigating attributes of youth retroactive and offering new hope to thousands of people who had been sentenced to life without parole as children.  For many, that hope has led to shorter prison sentences, and for hundreds of others, it’s meant freedom.  At the time of the decision, 2,800 individuals in the U.S. were serving life without parole for crimes committed as children.  In the six years since, 835 individuals formerly serving this sentence have been released from prison. 

Today, 25 states and the District of Columbia ban life-without-parole sentences for children, and in six additional states, no one is serving life without parole for a crime committed as a child.  While we celebrate this inspiring progress, we recognize that far too many others have not yet received the relief they rightfully deserve.  Thus, we are pressing forward in the fight for these individuals across all areas of our work, with a particular focus on state legislatures and advocacy in outlier states. You can read more about how far we have come and the challenges we still face in this report authored by Rebecca Turner, the CFSY’s Senior Litigation Counsel.  

The full report gives particular attention to developments in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana, which "each had more children sentenced to life without parole than any other state in the country" when Montgomery was handed down.  Here is how the report describes subsequent developments in those states and nationwide:

A majority of the 2,800 individuals serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) following Miller have been resentenced in court or had their sentences amended via legislation, depending on the jurisdiction in which they were convicted.

Yet despite the 80% reduction in people serving JLWOP, jurisdictions have varied significantly in their implementation of Miller. As a result, relief afforded to individuals serving JLWOP is based more on jurisdiction than on whether the individual has demonstrated positive growth and maturation.

The uneven implementation of Miller disproportionately impacts Black individuals, who represent 61% of the total JLWOP population....

Within that population [serving JLWOP when Montgomery was decided], 29% have been released, over 50% have had their sentences reduced from JLWOP, about 17% have not yet been afforded relief, and approximately 3% have been resentenced to JLWOP.

January 25, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Split New Jersey Supreme Court rules NJ constitution requires allowing juvenile offenders "to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison"

A helpful reader ensured I did not miss the fascinating New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in NJ v. Comer, A-42-20)(NJ Jan 10, 2022) (available here), regarding limits on extreme juvenile sentencing.  The start of the opinion for the Court provide the context and the essentials of the ruling:

This appeal raises challenging questions about the constitutional limits that apply to sentences for juvenile offenders.

The law recognizes what we all know from life experience -- that children are different from adults.  Children lack maturity, can be impetuous, are more susceptible to pressure from others, and often fail to appreciate the long-term consequences of their actions. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 477 (2012).  They are also more capable of change than adults. Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68 (2010).  Yet we know as well that some juveniles -- who commit very serious crimes and show no signs of maturity or rehabilitation over time -- should serve lengthy periods of incarceration.

The issue before the Court is how to meld those truths in a way that conforms to the Constitution and contemporary standards of decency.  In other words, how to impose lengthy sentences on juveniles that are not only just but that also account for a simple reality: we cannot predict, at a juvenile’s young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to reenter society.

The question arises in the context of two juveniles who committed extraordinarily serious crimes for which they received long sentences.  In one case, the juvenile offender, who was convicted of felony murder, will not be released for three decades and cannot be considered for parole throughout that time.  In the other appeal, it will be more than four decades before the 14-yearold offender, convicted of purposeful murder, will first be eligible to be considered for parole.

Both juveniles argue that their sentences violate federal and state constitutional provisions that bar cruel and unusual punishment.  See U.S. Const. amend. VIII; N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 12.  They ask the Court to find that a mandatory sentence of at least 30 years without parole, which N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 3(b)(1) requires, is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles.

We decline to strike that aspect of the homicide statute. But we recognize the serious constitutional issue defendants present under the State Constitution. The Court, in fact, anticipated the question in 2017 and asked the Legislature to consider amending the law to allow juvenile offenders who receive sentences with lengthy periods of parole ineligibility to return to court years later and have their sentences reviewed. State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422, 451-53 (2017).

Today, faced with actual challenges that cannot be overlooked, we are obligated to address the constitutional issue the parties present and cannot wait to see whether the Legislature will act, as the State requests. That approach is consistent with the basic roles of the different branches of government.  The Legislature has the responsibility to pass laws that fix the range of punishment for an offense; the Judiciary is responsible to determine whether those statutes are constitutional.  Under settled case law, courts also have the authority to act to protect statutes from being invalidated on constitutional grounds.

Here, the statutory framework for sentencing juveniles, if not addressed, will contravene Article I, Paragraph 12 of the State Constitution.  To remedy the concerns defendants raise and save the statute from constitutional infirmity, we will permit juvenile offenders convicted under the law to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison.  At that time, judges will assess a series of factors the United States Supreme Court has set forth in Miller v. Alabama, which are designed to consider the “mitigating qualities of youth.” 567 U.S. at 476-78 (quoting Johnson v. Texas, 509 U.S. 350, 367 (1993)).

We provide for the hearing, rather than strike the homicide statute on constitutional grounds, because we have no doubt the Legislature would want the law to survive. The timing of the hearing is informed by a number of sources, including acts by the Legislature and other officials.

At the hearing, the trial court will assess factors it could not evaluate fully decades before -- namely, whether the juvenile offender still fails to appreciate risks and consequences, and whether he has matured or been rehabilitated.  The court may also consider the juvenile offender’s behavior in prison since the time of the offense, among other relevant evidence.

After evaluating all the evidence, the trial court would have discretion to affirm or reduce the original base sentence within the statutory range, and to reduce the parole bar to no less than 20 years.  A juvenile who played a central role in a heinous homicide and then had a history of problematic behavior in prison, and was found to be incorrigible at the time of the later hearing, would be an unlikely candidate for relief.  On the other hand, a juvenile who originally acted in response to peer pressure and did not carry out a significant role in the homicide, and who presented proof at the hearing about how he had been rehabilitated and was now fit to reenter society after two decades, could be an appropriate candidate for a lesser sentence and a reduced parole bar.

The Appellate Division rejected the juveniles’ constitutional claims. We therefore reverse and remand both matters for resentencing. We express no opinion on the outcome of either hearing.

Three Justices dissented from this holding by the NJ Supreme Court, and the dissenting opinion begins this way:

The majority today holds that the New Jersey Constitution requires a 20- year lookback period for juvenile offenders who were waived to adult court and tried and convicted as adults of homicide offenses.  We acknowledge our colleagues’ view that the New Jersey Constitution permits our intervention here.  But we are not legislators imbued by our Constitution with such authority. In our view, the majority today act “as legislators” instead of as judges. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 175 (1976). Thus, we respectfully dissent.

The majority asserts that it is required to act by our Constitution and landmark juvenile sentencing cases from both this Court and the United States Supreme Court. See Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010); State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422 (2017).  The cited cases hold that, for the purpose of sentencing, the Constitution requires courts to treat juveniles differently and to consider certain factors before sentencing them to life without parole or its functional equivalent.  We believe that our current sentencing scheme fulfils that constitutional mandate.  Thus, it is not our prerogative to impose an additional restriction on juvenile sentencing.

In our view, a 30-year parole bar for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of homicide conforms with contemporary standards of decency, is not grossly disproportionate as to homicide offenses, and does not go beyond what is necessary to achieve legitimate penological objectives.

Accordingly, we believe that the majority’s imposition of a 20-year lookback period for homicide offenses is a subjective policy decision rather than one that is constitutionally mandated.  As such, it must be left to the Legislature, which could have considered all of the factors the majority has, and some it has not.  Instead, the majority joins a small minority of states with lookback periods imposed by judicial fiat rather than by statute.

January 12, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Henry Montgomery (of Montgomery v. Louisiana) finally granted parole at age 75

Henry Montgomery back in 2016 won in the US Supreme Court with his claim that the landmark Eighth Amendment decision in Miller v. Alabama must be applied retroactively. But that win only garnered him a chance to be paroled after serving more than 50 years on a murder charge as a teenager in the early 1960s.   Montgomery was in February 2018 denied parole as detailed in this post, and he was denied parole again in April 2019 as detailed in this post.  But I am pleased to now be able to report that the third time was a charm for Montgomery as reported in this UPI piece headlined "Longtime inmate and key figure in juvenile sentence reforms finally wins parole." Here are some of the details:

A Louisiana man who's spent the vast majority of his life in prison for killing a sheriff's deputy when he was a minor almost 60 years ago -- and whose case has been instrumental in freeing hundreds of inmates who were sentenced to life for crimes as juveniles -- is finally getting his chance to walk free.

Henry Montgomery on Wednesday appeared at his third hearing before a Louisiana parole board. The first two turned him down.  The third gave him his freedom after 57 years behind bars.

For years, advocates have said Montgomery is serving an unconscionably long sentence for a crime he committed as a minor, in spite of state Supreme Court rulings that determined that life sentences for juveniles amount to "cruel and unusual punishment."...

Montgomery was 17 when he shot and killed East Baton Rouge Paris Deputy Charles Hurt in 1963, after the lawman caught him skipping school. He's now 75. He was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence was overturned in 1966 when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that he did not receive a fair trial. After a retrial, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Montgomery has been locked up in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as "Angola" after the former plantation that occupied the area. "Through his personal growth, maturity, and maintenance of an excellent record of conduct while in prison, Henry proves daily that he is no longer the 17-year-old child he was in 1963," Marshan Allen, national policy director of Represent Justice, said in a tweet before Wednesday's decision....

Montgomery's case was at the center of a legal fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and resulted in a ruling that's allowed nearly 1,000 people who were sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile to be freed....

At his first two parole hearings -- in 2018 and 2019 -- he was denied release. At both hearings, two of the three board members voted to grant him his release from prison and one voted to keep him imprisoned. At the time, parole decisions had to be unanimous. Earlier this year, however, Louisiana changed its law to require only a majority vote if an inmate meets certain conditions -- meaning Montgomery would be freed if he got another 2-1 vote in his favor.

The dissenting voter who voted against releasing Montgomery in 2019 said that he hadn't presented enough programs in prison. But Andrew Hundley, one of the people who was released as a result of Montgomery vs. Louisiana and director of the Louisiana Parole Project, said that Angola did not offer such programs for decades of his sentence. "It was the most violent prison in America.  There wasn't this idea of rehabilitation and that prisoners should take part in programming to rehabilitate themselves," he told The Atlantic. "That culture didn't exist and there weren't programs. You just woke up every day trying not to get killed."

Hundley added that he's felt like it's his "life's work" to get Montgomery and others like him out of prison. "Henry was in prison 18 years before I was born. And I've been home five and a half years now."

November 17, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 08, 2021

"Resurrecting Arbitrariness"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Kathryn Miller available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

What allows judges to sentence a child to die in prison?  For years, they did so without constitutional restriction.  That all changed in 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory sentences of life without parole for children convicted of homicide crimes. Miller held that this extreme sentence was constitutional only for the worst offenders — the “permanently incorrigible.”  By embracing individualized sentencing, Miller and its progeny portended a sea change in the way juveniles would be sentenced for serious crimes. But if Miller opened the door to sentencing reform, the Court’s recent decision in Jones v. Mississippi appeared to slam it shut.

Rather than restrict the discretion of a judge to throw away the key in sentencing child defendants, the Court in Jones increased that discretion.  It recast Miller as a purely procedural decision that only required a barebones “consideration” of a defendant’s “youth and attendant circumstances” to fulfill its mandate of individualized sentencing. Jones further held that judges need not engage in any formal factfinding before sentencing a child to die in prison, which renders these sentences nearly unreviewable.  This article argues that, through these two jurisprudential moves, Jones created conditions that will maximize arbitrary and racially discriminatory sentencing outcomes nation-wide, resembling the unconstitutional death sentences of the mid-twentieth century.

This article is the first to comprehensively analyze Jones, contending that the decision represents an embrace of unfettered discretion in the sentencing of children facing life without parole.  Given the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Eighth Amendment, I contend that state solutions are the way forward.  I propose that states join the national trend of abandoning life without parole sentences for children.  Short of abolishing the sentence, I offer three procedural interventions.  First, states should enact “genuine narrowing” requirements that establish criteria designed to limit eligibility for life without parole sentences for children to the theoretical “worst of the worst.”  While inspired by the narrowing requirement in capital sentencing, “genuine narrowing” relies on meaningful and concrete criteria that seek to achieve the mandate of Miller that such sentences be uncommon.  Second, states should require jury sentencing, which ensures that sentences will be imposed by multiple, and typically more diverse, voices than what currently occurs with judicial sentencing.  Third, states should go beyond merely telling sentencers to take youth into account in their sentencing decisions, but should instead inform them that the characteristics of youth are “mitigating as a matter of law,” and when pre-sent, must weigh against an imposition of life without parole.

November 8, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Washington Supreme Court rules 46-year minimum term for juve murderer "unconstitutional de facto life sentence"

The Supreme Court of the State of Washington issued an interesting opinion regarding juvenile sentencing rules late last week in State v. Haag, No. 97766-6 (Wash. Sept. 23, 2021) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion in Haag gets started:

It is well established that “children are different from adults” for sentencing purposes.  State v. Houston-Sconiers, 188 Wn.2d 1, 18, 391 P.3d 409 (2017).  When a child commits the crime of aggravated first degree murder, the federal and state constitutions, the enactments of our legislature, and our case law demand that such a child be treated differently from an adult.  Here, this body of law demands another resentencing hearing for Timothy Haag.

In 1995, Haag was sentenced to mandatory life without parole for a crime he committed at the age of 17.  In 2018, at a Miller-fix resentencing conducted pursuant to RCW 10.95.030, the resentencing court expressly found that “Haag is not irretrievably depraved nor irreparably corrupt.” 1 Verbatim Report of Proceedings (Jan. 19, 2018) at 25.  Yet the court resentenced Haag to a term of 46 years to life; the earliest that he could be released is at the age of 63.  Id. at 27.  Haag sought review in this court, arguing that the trial court erroneously emphasized retribution over mitigation and that his sentence amounts to an unconstitutional de facto life sentence.  We agree.

We hold that the resentencing court erred because it gave undue emphasis to retributive factors over mitigating factors. We also hold that Haag’s 46-year minimum term amounts to an unconstitutional de facto life sentence.  We reverse and remand for resentencing in accordance with this opinion.

September 26, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Split Eight Circuit panel upholds order Missouri must improve its parole process to comply with Miller

In this post from two years ago, I noted a federal district court ruling finding that the Missouri's parole policies and practices failed to give juveniles subject to life terms a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as required by Eighth Amendment doctrines. This past Friday, a split Eighth Circuit panel upheld the bulk of this ruling in Brown v. Precythe, No. 19-2910 (8th Cir. Sept. 17, 2021) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion starts and ends:

This appeal arises from a constitutional challenge to Missouri’s remedial parole review process for individuals sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole for homicide offenses committed as juveniles.  The plaintiffs, a class of Missouri inmates who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole for such juvenile homicide offenses (collectively, Plaintiffs or the JLWOP Class), claim that Missouri’s parole review policies and practices violate their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and their rights to due process of law under the U.S. Constitution and the Missouri Constitution.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Plaintiffs, holding that Missouri’s parole review process did not provide a meaningful opportunity for release based on Plaintiffs’ demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.  After ordering Missouri to present a plan to remedy those constitutional violations, the district court also ordered that Missouri (1) could not use any risk assessment tool in its parole review process unless the tool was developed specifically to address members of the JLWOP Class, and (2) was not required to provide state-funded counsel to JLWOP Class members in their parole proceedings.  Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand to the district court for further proceedings....

Accordingly, we affirm the order of the district court that the parole review process of SB 590 violated Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights, and we affirm the order that Missouri cannot use a risk assessment tool in its revised parole proceedings unless it has been developed to address the unique circumstances of the JLWOP Class.  We vacate the order regarding appointment of counsel and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.  

Judge Colloton's extended dissent gets started this way:

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), the Supreme Court addressed how a State may remedy a violation of the rule of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that a court may not sentence a juvenile homicide offender to a mandatory term of life without parole.  Montgomery declared that “[a] State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.”  577 U.S. at 212. Missouri did what Montgomery prescribed: it provided by statute that a juvenile homicide offender who was originally sentenced to mandatory life without parole may petition for parole after serving twenty-five years of his sentence.  Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.047.1(1).  That should be the end of this case.

The court goes much further and purports to apply the Eighth Amendment rule of Miller and Montgomery regarding imposition of sentence in a criminal case to Missouri’s parole process.  The result is a federal injunction that dictates detailed changes to the Missouri parole procedures and a remand to consider whether the Constitution requires the appointment of state-funded lawyers to represent juvenile homicide offenders in parole proceedings.  It seems to me that there are several analytical difficulties with the court’s approach.

September 19, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 16, 2021

En banc Third Circuit upholds 65-year juvenile sentence in Grant more than three years after bold panel ruling

In this post way back in April 2018, I noted a remarkable Third Circuit panel opinion in US v. Grant, addressing the application of Eighth Amendment limits on juvenile sentences while vacating  a 65-year federal prison term for a 16-year-old offender.  Among other points, the original split panel opinion in Grant held that "lower courts must consider the age of retirement as a sentencing factor, in addition to life expectancy and the § 3553(a) factors, when sentencing juvenile offenders that are found to be capable of reform."  But six months later, as detailed in this October 2018 post, the active judges voted for rehearing en banc in Grant upon the government's petition and the original opinion and judgment were vacated. 

Now, nearly three years later, the en banc Third Circuit has finally ruled in favor of the government US v. Grant, No. 16-3820 (3d Cir. Aug. 16, 2021) (available here).  Here is how the en banc majority opinion in Grant now starts:

A federal court jury convicted Corey Grant in 1992 of homicide and other crimes that he had committed while he was a juvenile.  The presiding judge sentenced Grant to life imprisonment under the then-mandatory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  Parole is unavailable to those convicted of federal crimes, so the sentence effectively condemned Grant to die in prison — with proof of circumstances warranting compassionate release his only hope.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, which held that the Eighth Amendment permits a life-without-parole (“LWOP”) sentence for a juvenile homicide offender only if the sentencer could have imposed a lesser punishment based on the offender’s youth at the time of the offense.  Later, the Court made Miller retroactive to cases on collateral review.  Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016). Because Grant’s LWOP sentence was imposed mandatorily, Miller entitled him to a new sentencing.

At resentencing, the District Judge noted Grant’s minority at the time of his crimes and recognized that youth can impair judgment and thereby mitigate culpability.  The Judge stated that a life sentence for Grant would be too harsh, given his juvenile offender status and individual circumstances, and instead sentenced Grant to a term of 60 years on his homicide-related convictions. Factoring in an undisturbed five-year consecutive sentence, Grant’s total sentence was effectively reduced to 65 years.

Grant now argues that his 65-year sentence violates Miller because it incarcerates him to his life expectancy, thereby amounting to a de facto LWOP sentence. Grant contends that Miller forbids such a sentence for a juvenile homicide offender unless he or she is incorrigible, which Grant is not.  But Miller only entitled Grant to a sentencing hearing at which the District Court had discretion to impose a sentence less than LWOP in view of Grant’s youth at the time of his offenses. And that is what he received. So we will affirm Grant’s 65-year sentence.

In the alternative, Grant maintains that we should remand for yet another sentencing proceeding because vacatur of his LWOP sentence under Miller invalidated his lesser-included concurrent sentence on drug-trafficking counts.  But Grant did not preserve this argument, and the District Court’s failure to extend our sentencing-package doctrine beyond vacated convictions to vacated sentences was not plain error.

This opinion was a long time coming no doubt in part because the en banc court likely was eager to await the Supreme Court's latest pronouncement on the application of Miller. Recall that SCOTUS granted cert in the Malvo case to address the proper retroactive application of Miller way back in March 2019, though only finally spoke on this topic in the replacement Jones v. Alabama case this past April.  Unsurprisingly, this Grant ruling leans heavily on Jones, and seeing how Jones is being applied in this context provides one reason for sentencing fans to check out this new ruling.

But hard-core Eighth Amendment fans will want to make sure they also check out some of the additional opinions, particularly a 15-page concurrence authored by Judge Hardiman and joined by three other judges.  That opinion attacks the Supreme Court's “evolving standards of decency” test for having a history "marked by an illegitimate pedigree and the substitution of judicial preferences about penological policy for the will of the People." And it concludes this way:

The story of the evolving standards of decency test — from its questionable creation in Trop v. Dulles, through a decade of dormancy, its recurrence in death penalty cases, and its recent transformation into the law of the land — has created more problems than it has solved.  Its inscrutable standards require judges to eschew the law as written in favor of moral sentiment.  The only constant is that more and more laws adopted by the People’s representatives have been nullified.  And the People have no practical way to reverse this contrived ratchet.
This Court, relying on a careful review of the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment precedents, reaches the right conclusion for the right reason.  But if the Supreme Court continues to apply “the evolving standards of decency” test, I wonder what will be the next stop on this runaway train of elastic constitutionalism?  As Chief Justice Roberts cautioned nine years ago: there is “no discernable end point.”

August 16, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Notable accounting of rarity of released juvenile lifers getting in trouble again in Michigan

This local story from Michigan, headlined "Crime by ‘juvenile lifers’ after prison ‘very rare,’ state says," provides an interesting overview of how juve lifers have been faring after release in the Wolverine State. Here are the details:

When a shotgun-toting convicted murderer held police at bay for seven hours in Barry County, it prompted Target 8 to check into the records of other “juvenile lifers” released from prison.

Timothy Riddle was 15 years old when he killed an elderly Wayne County woman in 1988 while robbing her home. Riddle served 28 years in a Michigan prison before he was released in 2017, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional. His parole ended in early November 2019 and records show his run-ins with police began less than two months later. Since then, he’s been arrested eight times for crimes ranging from shoplifting to larceny and assault.

Riddle was wanted for a series of break-ins Wednesday when Hastings police spotted him and chased him through Barry County. The 48-year-old ultimately barricaded himself for seven hours inside a gas station in the small town of Woodland. He fired a shot inside the store, but police said it appeared he was not trying to hit anyone. No one was injured and Riddle was arrested.

According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, 142 juvenile lifers have been released from prison following resentencing per the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Riddle is the only known arrest. “This is a very rare case,” wrote Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson, in an email exchange with Target 8.

In Michigan, former prisoners are considered recidivists — or repeat offenders — if they end up back in prison within three years of their release. “Most of the (juvenile lifer) releases are too current to be tracked for ‘recidivism,’ (but) overall, this population appears to do well on supervision before discharging from our jurisdiction,” Gautz said.

While MDOC may deem it too early to assess recidivism rates among former juvenile lifers, attorney Deborah Labelle noted the rate would be less than 1%. That’s compared to a 26% recidivism rate among the general prison population.

“Mr. Riddle is the only juvenile lifer that I am aware has even been arrested,” Labelle wrote in an email to Target 8. “(Juvenile lifers’ recidivism) is extraordinarily low,” Labelle said. “There are many who are having spectacular achievements and many more who have reentered and are working and raising families, helping nieces, nephews and siblings, while they build their lives.”

Labelle is an Ann Arbor attorney who fought the state on behalf of hundreds of juvenile lifers in Michigan prisons. So far, the state says 258 people have been resentenced, 142 of whom have since been released from prison.

Labelle spoke of one former juvenile lifer who recently completed college in Arizona and works as a counselor. She said another is working for a prosecutor’s office and applying to law school after getting his master’s in social work....

Even with the many successes, advocates said more resources are needed to help former juvenile lifers make the transition back into society. “What we see time and time again is that people do need one-on-one support,” said Marilena David-Martin of the State Appellate Defender Office. “It’s not easy to come home from prison after serving 40 years and then figure out how to be.”

August 11, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 19, 2021

"The Evolving Standards, As Applied"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by William Berry now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In Jones v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court adopted a narrow reading of its Eighth Amendment categorical bar on mandatory juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) sentences.  Specifically, the Court rejected the Jones’ claim that the Eighth Amendment categorical limit required a sentencing jury or judge make a finding of permanent incorrigibility — that the defendant is beyond hope of rehabilitation — as a prerequisite to imposing a JLWOP sentence.

In dicta, the Court suggested that Jones could have made an individual as-applied challenge to his sentence under the Eighth Amendment by claiming that his JLWOP sentence was disproportionate to the crime he committed.  While the Court has used a narrow disproportionality standard in non-capital, non-JLWOP cases, it is not clear what standard would apply to individual as-applied Eighth Amendment challenges in capital and JLWOP cases.  The Court customarily reviews such cases categorically under a heightened evolving standards of decency standard, which suggests that an individual as-applied challenge would also merit some heightened level of review.

Accordingly, this Article argues for the adoption of heightened standards of Eighth Amendment review for individual as-applied proportionality challenges in capital and JLWOP cases.  Specifically, the Article advocates for the adoption of an intermediate level of review for JLWOP cases and a strict scrutiny level of review for capital cases.  Further, the Article argues for a broadening of the kinds of sentences that receive heightened scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment, both for categorical challenges and for individual as-applied proportionality challenges.

Part One of the Article describes the Court’s evolving standards of decency doctrine and Eighth Amendment’s categorical limitations on capital and JLWOP sentences.  In Part Two, the Article explains the other side of the application of the Eighth Amendment, the narrow disproportionality test the Court uses to evaluate as-applied challenges in individual non-capital, non-JLWOP cases.  Part Three then argues for the adoption of heightened as-applied standards of review in individual capital and JLWOP cases as an application of the evolving standards of decency doctrine.  Finally, Part IV sketches some possible extensions of the Eighth Amendment’s evolving standards to other punishments and other classes of defendants.

July 19, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Interesting split Fourth Circuit panel debate while upholding resentencing to 52 years for violent offenses by 15-year-old

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting discussion of sentencing practices and outcomes by a Fourth Circuit panel yesterday in US v. Friend, No. 20-4129 (4th Cir. June 28, 2021) (available here). The first paragraph of the majority opinion sets the terms:

Appellant Philip Friend, who actively participated as a fifteen-year-old juvenile in a series of violent carjackings, challenges the fifty-two-year sentence imposed by the district court after a remand in this case.  Our remand instructed the district court to give a more thorough explanation for its sentence, with the prospect that a more tempered sentence might also result.  United States v. Friend, 755 F. App’x 234 (4th Cir. 2018).  These things have now both come to pass. The offenses in question occurred long ago, but their consequences have been long lasting. Because the district court acted within its discretion in imposing the present sentence, we affirm.

And here is a key passage from the majority's extended discussion and the concluding sentiments of the majority (cites removed):

But to sum it up, it is clearly permissible for a sentencing court to weigh the gravity of the offense or the impact a defendant’s crimes have had on a community and to vindicate that community’s interest in justice.  That after all, is the reason a defendant is before the court.  An exclusive focus on one factor impermissibly vitiates the requisite individualized consideration.  On the other hand, for appellate courts to micromanage sentencings and demand a district court assign equal weight to each § 3553(a) factor would also disregard a sentencing’s individualized inquiry and toss our deferential abuse-of-discretion review to the winds.  Ultimately, defendant’s disagreement with the district court’s weighing of the sentencing factors is not enough to find the sentence procedurally unreasonable....

To find this sentence unreasonable would displace the discretion that district judges possess in setting sentences. We are a court of appellate review, not a panel of appellate sentencers. District courts are granted exceptional discretion in sentencing for a reason.  They view the full criminal tableau first-hand, and they weigh the conflicting evidence and competing arguments. Their choices are not easy. When a court abuses its discretion, it is this court’s duty to correct the error. But when a district court is responsive to our mandates and reasonably exercises its sentencing power, we must respect its judgment.  So we do here.

Writing in dissent, Judge Floyd explains at length why he sees matters differently. His opinion starts this way:

At the age of fifteen, Philip Bernard Friend and various members of his family committed a series of extremely serious crimes.  Nobody disputes the severity of those offenses or the irreparable harm that Philip visited upon the lives of his victims and their families.  But this appeal tests the legality of the district court’s imposition of a fifty-two year sentence on a juvenile offender.  Today, the majority declares Philip’s half-century sentence procedurally and substantively reasonable.  Because I cannot agree with the majority’s conclusion on either score, I respectfully dissent.

June 29, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 05, 2021

"Roper, Graham, Miller, & the MS-13 Juvenile Homicide Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Raphael Friedman now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The majority of MS-13 suspects arrested for murder on Long Island in recent years have been minors.  This shocking and tragic phenomenon raises vexing issues for law enforcement, the courts, politicians, educators, and all citizens in communities plagued by gang violence.  This Note focuses on a single legal issue: in light of recent Supreme Court cases, beginning with the 2005 landmark ruling in Roper v. Simmons, how should judges impose sentences on persons convicted of committing homicide before their eighteenth birthday?  Although we will see that the holdings of the three leading Supreme Court cases addressing this question are reasonably clear, many challenging questions remain for sentencing judges who attempt to faithfully apply these decisions.  This Note will explore some of these issues through the prism of MS-13 juvenile-homicide cases, using the sentencing of Josue Portillo for his quadruple murder when he was 15 years-old, as a case study.

This Note proceeds in three parts. Part I sets the stage for studying the Supreme Court’s juvenile sentencing jurisprudence. It takes a step back in order to orient the landmark trilogy of cases — Roper, Graham, and Miller — within the broader legal framework of criminal and juvenile justice. It is broken into three subcategories.  Subpart (A) briefly explains the principal justifications for punishing criminality.  After better understanding why we punish altogether, Subpart (B) analyzes why juveniles should be punished differently from adults.  This is explored very briefly from a historical, political, and legal perspective.  Subpart (C) explains in what circumstances juveniles in the justice system are treated like adults and why, again from a historical, political, and legal perspective.  Part II examines how the Supreme Court limited in some measure the punishments that can be meted out to juveniles, even if being sentenced within the adult criminal justice system.  Roper, Graham, and Miller are explored in detail, as well as some of the preceding cases that paved the road to these landmark rulings, and some subsequent cases.  Part III analyzes how judges should implement the guidance given by the Supreme Court in these cases.  The analysis will trace Josue Portillo’s case but its implications apply across the field of juvenile justice.

June 5, 2021 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 03, 2021

Another round of early (mostly critical) commentary on Jones

I shared in this post some of my first thoughts about the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment juvenile LWOP decision in Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259 (S. Ct. April 22, 2021) (available here), and then I rounded up a few days later in this post some notable initial critical commentary.  Just over a week later, I have seen a number of additional notable takes on the ruling, and here is another abridged round up: 

From Andrew Cohen, "Supreme Court: Let’s Make It Easier for Judges to Send Teenagers to Die in Prison"

From Brandon Garrett, "Justices' Life Sentence Ruling Is A Step Back For Youth Rights"

From Jack Karp, "Jones Marks Shift In High Court's Juvenile Justice Rulings"

From Marc Levin, "Supreme Court Puts Onus on Lawmakers to Provide Second Chances for Kids"

From Christine Sarteschi and Daniel Pollack, "Life Without Parole for Minors: The Supreme Court and the Statistics"

From Kent Scheidegger, "Dumping a Dishonest Precedent Less Than Honestly — Part I"

From Beth Schwartzapfel, "Supreme Court Conservatives Just Made It Easier to Sentence Kids to Life in Prison"

Some prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I just noticed this notable observation from Kent Scheidegger over at Crime & Consequences concerning action by the Justices in related cases via the May 3 order list:

The U.S. Supreme Court released its regular Monday orders list today.  Not surprisingly, there were several wake-of-Jones orders in cases that had been on hold for that decision.  Oklahoma v. Johnson, No. 19-250, and United States v. Briones, No. 19-720, were sent back for reconsideration.  These were cases where the lower court decided in an under-18 murderer’s favor based on a broad interpretation of Montgomery v. Louisiana.  Cases where the lower court ruled against the defendant based on a narrow interpretation of Montgomery were simply denied, including Newton v. Indiana, No. 17-1511, and Garcia v. North Dakota, No. 19-399.

May 3, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Evan Miller, of Miller v. Alabama, sentenced again to LWOP for murder committed when he was only 14

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Juvenile lifer who set precedent sentenced to life again," a high-profile juvenile murderer was sentenced yet again to life in prison without parole despite having helped win a Supreme Court ruling reversing his original LWOP sentence. Here are the details:

Evan Miller was just 14 when he committed the slaying that sent him to prison. In reviewing his case, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles — saying judges and juries should consider the special factors of youth — a decision that eventually led to inmates across the country getting a chance at release.

But Miller will not get that chance. A judge on Tuesday handed down a second life sentence without possibility of parole.

Lawrence Circuit Judge Mark Craig ruled that Evan Miller, despite being a young teen when he committed his crime, met the legal criteria to be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Craig said the severity of Miller’s crime outweighed the mitigating factors of Miller’s age and his abuse-filled childhood that the defense argued made him deserving of an opportunity of a chance to get out of prison some day. Craig said a sentence of life without the possibility of parole was the “only just sentence” over the lesser punishment of life with a chance of parole after 30 years.

Miller was 14 in 2003 when he and another teen beat Cole Cannon with a baseball bat before setting fire to his trailer, a crime for which he was originally sentenced to a mandatory life sentence. Before handing down the sentence, Craig repeated the line that Miller was attributed with saying before he delivered a final blow to Cannon: “I am God. I’ve come to take your life.” Craig said those were some of “the most chilling words I have heard.”

Craig said he was not convinced Miller could be rehabilitated and noted that Miller was the primary aggressor in the slaying. “Had you not made the decisions that night, Mr. Cannon, in my view, would still be alive,” Craig said. “You showed cunning, not clumsy, rash thinking.”

Miller, now 32, appeared during the hearing, which was conducted virtually, by video link from an office at the Alabama prison where he is incarcerated. He did not visibly react as the sentence was read.

The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled in Miller’s case 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 punishment. In the 2012 opinion in Miller’s case, justices ordered that judges and juries should consider “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change” should make such sentences “uncommon.”...

While other juvenile lifers across the country have seen their sentences reduced because of Miller’s case and a later ruling that made the decision retroactive, his own case had lingered without a decision until Tuesday. At an earlier resentencing hearing, Miller’s lawyers cited his childhood of physical abuse and neglect and argued that at 14, his brain was not fully developed....

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the judge, “restored the punishment that is fitting for Evan Miller’s wicked actions.” “When Evan Miller robbed and savagely beat his neighbor, setting fire to the man’s trailer and leaving his incapacitated victim to die a horrible death, he earned a well-deserved sentence of life in prison without parole,” Marshall said in a statement.

April 27, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Rounding up some early (mostly critical) commentary on Jones

I shared in this post yesterday some of my early thoughts about the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment juvenile LWOP decision in Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259 (S. Ct. April 22, 2021) (available here).  Though disappointed by the outcome, my long-standing concerns with the Supreme Court's jurisprudence in this arena (as discussed in pieces here and here) perhaps led me to be not too startled by the Court's work.  But, as evidenced by some of the commentary I have seen about Jones in the last few days, it seems many are quite aggrieved.  Here is an abdridged round up: 

From Josh Blackman, "Conservative Justices Do Not Need To Apologize For Making Socially-Conservative Rulings; I'm looking at you Justice Kavanaugh."

From Rory Fleming, "The Supreme Court’s Abhorrent Decision to Back Life-Without-Parole for Kids"

From Chris Geidner, "Kavanaugh just erased years of precedent to keep kids in jail forever; The Court's conservative wing will now let kids spent their lives behind bars."

From Ruth Marcus, "At the Supreme Court, a tale of two Bretts"

From John Pfaff, "It is ludicrous for the Supreme Court to say children are irredeemable"

From Mark Joseph Stern, "Brett Kavanaugh’s Opinion Restoring Juvenile Life Without Parole Is Dishonest and Barbaric"

From Elliot Williams, "Supreme Court's staggering deviation from precedent"

April 24, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 23, 2021

A few first thoughts on Jones and juve LWOP

Because I am on the road, I have only had a chance to read once and quickly the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment juvenile LWOP decision in Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259 (S. Ct. April 22, 2021) (available here).  Though I will need more reads and more time to come to a fully-formed view on this ruling, I do have a few first thoughts on the work of the Court and various Justices.  Here are some of these first thoughts:

1. I have always seen Montgomery as a somewhat clumsy rewrite and extension of Miller (as I discussed in this short piece), and I am not surprised that a more conservative Court has now stressed the importance of state authority to implement Miller without further constitutional elaboration of what the Jones majority calls "particular policy approaches" to juvenile sentencing.  Because I have long viewed all LWOP sentences, for offenders of any age, as poor policy and constitutionally suspect on various grounds, I am disappointed  the Court now has only three votes to embrace and further extend Mongtomery's extension of MIller.  But since a majority of current Justices now think the Constitution readily permits the sentencing of juveniles to die in prison, it readily follows that a majrity of Justices are disinclined to read substantive constitutional limitations into how this such sentencing takes place in the states. 

2. Speaking of the Justices, this ruling (and I fear others to come) may prevent me from wishfully thinking the current Supreme Court is still inclined to be pro-defendant on big sentencing issues.  For a good number of years before recent changes in personnel, criminal defendants got a whole lot of very big wins from SCOTUS on sentencing issues (despite still often losing in circuit courts and elsewhere).  But this Jones ruling is a clear indication that replacing Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Ginsburg with Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett likely means the era of big defense wins in a number of big sentencing cases may be over.  Particularly notable when thinking about the overall Court is how the new Justices may have swayed Chief Justice Roberts, who was with the old majority in Montgomery to extend Miller for the benefit of juveniles, but now is in the Jones majority trmming back the protections of the Eighth Amendment.

3. Speaking of the Chief Justice, I have long hoped that his discussion of as-applied Eighth Amendment claims in Graham might spur many more as-applied Eighth Amendment challenges (especially for cases inolving older teens).  Against that backdrop, I found interesting this statement by the Court toward the end of its Jones opinon: "Moreover, this case does not properly present — and thus we do not consider — any as-applied Eighth Amendment claim of disproportionality regarding Jones’s sentence." This sentence suggests that Brett Jones — as well as every other juvenile sentenced to LWOP in a discretionary scheme — still can and certainly should argue that the particular facts of his case make LWOP unconstitutional as applied.  If future lower court litigation involving Brett Jones or other juveniles might help produce a meaningful as-applied Eighth Amendment jursprudence, perhaps such a jurisprudence could possibly provide some additional protections for a range of persons subject to a range of extreme sentences.

4.  Speaking of additional protections for a range of persons, it is important to remember that even if Jones was resolved in favor of the defendant, the Eighth Amendment would still have been interpreted to provide only the most limited of protections to the most limited set of juveniles convicted of murder.  A lot more than a robust Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is needed to have a real impact on modern mass incarceration and extreme punishments, and it will always be up to legislatures and executive branch officials to enact sounder sentencing laws and apply them in a more humane manner.  Over the last decade, we have, encouragingly, seen many more legislatures and prosecutors do a lot better on sentencing policy and practice.  The Jones ruling is perhaps ultimately just another reminder that steady policy work, rather than sporatic constitutional litigation, remains the surest path to an improved criminal justice system.

April 23, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

SCOTUS affirms juve LWOP sentence, 6-3, in Jones v Mississippi

I am on the road today, and so I am not that surprised the Supreme Court has handed down the big sentencing opinion I have been awaiting all Term.  I hope to comment later today.

UPDATE Thanks to airport wifi, I can now provide this link to the full opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259 (S. Ct. April 22, 2021).  Here is how Justice Kavanaugh's opinion for the Court begins

Under Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), an individual who commits a homicide when he or she is under 18 may be sentenced to life without parole, but only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment.  In this case, a Mississippi trial judge acknowledged his sentencing discretion under Miller and then sentenced petitioner Brett Jones to life without parole for a murder that Jones committed when he was under 18.  The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the discretionary sentencing procedure satisfied Miller.

Jones argues, however, that a sentencer’s discretion to impose a sentence less than life without parole does not alone satisfy Miller.  Jones contends that a sentencer who imposes a life-without-parole sentence must also make a separate factual finding that the defendant is permanently incorrigible, or at least provide an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an implicit finding that the defendant is permanently incorrigible.  And Jones says that the trial judge did not make such a finding in his case.

Jones’s argument that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the Court’s precedents.  In Miller, the Court mandated “only that a sentencer follow a certain process — considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing” a life-without-parole sentence.  Id., at 483.  And in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that Miller applies retroactively on collateral review, the Court flatly stated that “Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement” and added that “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required.” 577 U.S. 190, 211 (2016). In light of that explicit language in the Court’s prior decisions, we must reject Jones’s argument.  We affirm the judgment of the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

Justice Sotomayor's dissent, which is joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, starts this way:

Today, the Court guts Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016). Contrary to explicit holdings in both decisions, the majority claims that the Eighth Amendment permits juvenile offenders convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) as long as “the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment.” Ante, at 1. In the Court’s view, a sentencer never need determine, even implicitly, whether a juvenile convicted of homicide is one of “those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at 209. Even if the juvenile’s crime reflects “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’” Miller, 567 U.S., at 479, he can be sentenced to die in prison.

This conclusion would come as a shock to the Courts in Miller and MontgomeryMiller’s essential holding is that “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at 195 (quoting Miller, 567 U.S., at 479–480).  Sentencing discretion is “necessary to separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not,” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at 210, but it is far from sufficient.  A sentencer must actually “make th[e] judgment” that the juvenile in question is one of those rare children for whom LWOP is a constitutionally permissible sentence.  Miller, 567 U.S., at 480.  The Court has thus expressly rejected the notion that sentencing discretion, alone, suffices: “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at 208 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Today, however, the Court reduces Miller to a decision requiring “just a discretionary sentencing procedure where youth [is] considered.” Ante, at 11.  Such an abrupt break from precedent demands “special justification.” Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U. S. ___, ___ (2020) (KAVANAUGH, J., concurring in part) (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court offers none.  Instead, the Court attempts to circumvent stare decisis principles by claiming that “[t]he Court’s decision today carefully follows both Miller and Montgomery.” Ante, at 19.  The Court is fooling no one.  Because I cannot countenance the Court’s abandonment of Miller and Montgomery, I dissent.

April 22, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, March 15, 2021

Georgia Supreme Court affirms discretionary juve LWOP sentence despite judge's statement it could not find juvenile "irreparably corrupt"

In the next few months, perhaps in the coming weeks, we should be getting an opinion from the Supreme Court in Jones v. Mississippi to help us better understand if Eighth Amendment jurisprudence requires a sentencer to make a specific finding about a juvenile before exercising its discretion to impose a sentence of life without parole.  In the meantime, states continue to struggle with juvenile LWOP sentencing requirements amidst all the resentencings that had to take place after Miller v. Alabama prohibited mandatory LWOP for juveniles. 

This morning, the Supreme Court of Georgia in Moss v. Georgia, S20A1520 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2021) (available here), addressed this issue in a case in which the sentencing court suggested it was impossible to make a certain finding about a juvenile defendant.  Here is the start and a key passage from the unanimous ruling in Moss:

Jermontae Moss was convicted of felony murder, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, and theft by receiving stolen property in connection with the shooting death of Jose Marin. On appeal, Moss contends that his trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance and that the trial court erred in sentencing Moss—a 17-year-old juvenile at the time of the crimes—to life in prison without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) for murder.  Neither of Moss’s contentions has merit, so we affirm....

It is true, as Moss points out, that at one point in its lengthy order the trial court also opined on the role of the “Divine” in the ultimate judgment of a human being:

This Court cannot find, in this case or in any other, that the Defendant himself is “irretrievably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.” And it is this Court’s firm opinion that no court at any level is ever able to make such a determination; it is beyond human capacity. Only a Divine Judge could look into a person and determine that he is permanently and irretrievably corrupt; that he has reached a state from which there is no return, no hope of redemption, no hope of any restoration.

(Emphasis in original.)  But we do not view Miller or Montgomery — or cases from this Court applying Miller and Montgomery, such as Veal, White, and Raines — as requiring the trial court to conduct a metaphysical assessment of a juvenile defendant.  Given the express determinations contained in the trial court’s order and summarized in part above, we cannot say that the trial court’s additional observations about the metaphysical — especially when viewed in the full context of the court’s order — somehow rendered the trial court’s analysis erroneous.

March 15, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Split Washington Supreme Court, relying on state constitution, forbids mandatory LWOP sentences for those under 21

Today, via a 5-4 ruling in In re Pers. Restraint of Monschke and Bartholomew, No. 96772-5 (Wash. Mar. 11, 2021) (available here), the Supreme Court of Washington extended the reach of the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling by declaring mandatory LWOP for those under 21 to be unconstitutional (pursuant to Washington's state constitutional prohibition of "cruel punishment").  Here is how the majority opinion starts and ends:

Dwayne Earl Bartholomew and Kurtis William Monschke were each convicted of aggravated first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole — a mandatory, nondiscretionary sentence under Washington’s aggravated murder statute.  RCW 10.95.030.  Bartholomew was 20 years old; Monschke was 19.  Many years after their convictions, each filed a personal restraint petition (PRP) asking us to consider whether article I, section 14 of our state constitution or the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution permits a mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentence for youthful defendants like themselves.  Specifically, they ask us to decide whether the constitutional requirement that judges exercise discretion at sentencing, which forbids such mandatory LWOP sentences for those under 18, also forbids those sentences for 18- to 21-year-old defendants.

Modern social science, our precedent, and a long history of arbitrary line drawing have all shown that no clear line exists between childhood and adulthood.  For some purposes, we defer to the legislature’s decisions as to who constitutes an “adult.”  But when it comes to mandatory LWOP sentences, Miller’s constitutional guarantee of an individualized sentence — one that considers the mitigating qualities of youth — must apply to defendants at least as old as these defendants were at the time of their crimes.  Miller v. United States, 567 U.S. 460, 469-80, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012).  Accordingly, we grant both PRPs and order that Bartholomew and Monschke each receive a new sentencing hearing....

There is no meaningful cognitive difference between 17-year-olds and many 18-year-olds.  When it comes to Miller’s prohibition on mandatory LWOP sentences, there is no constitutional difference either.  Just as courts must exercise discretion before sentencing a 17-year-old to die in prison, so must they exercise the same discretion when sentencing an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old.  We grant Monschke’s and Bartholomew’s PRPs and vacate their mandatory LWOP sentences.  We remand each case for a new sentencing hearing at which the trial court must consider whether each defendant was subject to the mitigating qualities of youth.

The dissent authored by Justice Owens begins this way:

Kurtis Monschke and Dwayne Bartholomew committed brutal murders decades ago.  At the time, they were 19 and 20 years old, respectively.  They were not children. Under Washington law, when an individual turns 18 years old, they are empowered to make a range of life-altering decisions: suddenly, they can form contracts, drop out of school, get married, work a hazardous job, and serve in the military.  But at this same moment, they also obtain the full responsibilities and consequences of adulthood, and the court will no longer intervene on their behalf on the basis of age.  Nonetheless, the lead opinion holds today that we must create an exception in treating these individuals as adults when they commit aggravated murder between the ages of 18 and 20.  Mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences are now prohibited for this age category.  The lead opinion crafts this new rule by filtering our state constitution’s “cruel punishment” prohibition through a handful of scientific studies and circumvents the reality that no legislatures or courts in the other 49 states have ever recognized such a protection.  WASH. CONST. art. I, § 14.  As the final arbiters of what “cruel” means under article I, section 14 of our state constitution, this court must use a disciplined and evenhanded approach in evaluating its meaning. If we do not, we risk transforming our protection against “cruelty” into whatever is supported by a smattering of studies and five concurring members of this court.

At the heart of this case is the important question of when a person should be held fully accountable as an adult.  This is a question that requires a meticulous examination of a number of scientific, moral, ethical, and practical considerations. Our court is not a legislature, and it is insufficiently equipped to decide this issue on selectively presented evidence put forth by limited parties on a constrained schedule.  The lead opinion broadly seeks to protect against the “unacceptable risk that youthful defendants without fully developed brains will receive a cruel LWOP sentence.”  Lead opinion at 29. But I struggle to identify at what precise age we will stop redrawing these lines based on this brain development evidence, be it 20, 22, 25, or even older.  I further caution that today’s decision may eventually compel us to revisit and invalidate a staggering number of LWOP and Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA), ch. 9.94A RCW, sentences for this growing group under our recent decisions in State v. Bassett and State v. Houston-Sconiers.  This task would tremendously burden the State’s resources and the victims’ families. I respectfully dissent.

March 11, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, January 30, 2021

"Assessing Graham v. Florida at the Ten-Year Mark: Progress and the Prospects for Ongoing Juvenile Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this great looking upcoming symposium being conducted by the Catholic University Law Review this coming Friday, February 5, 2021 starting at 1pm EST. Here is how the event is described and the planned coverage (click through to see all the great speakers):

Three Supreme Court decisions in the last decade have dramatically reshaped the treatment of juveniles in our criminal justice system.  In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court held that juveniles may not be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for non-homicide crimes.  Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court held that even juveniles convicted of homicide may not be sentenced to mandatory LWOP.  Finally, in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), the Court held that Miller was retroactively applicable, thereby entitling several thousand individuals to a resentencing hearing at which their youth and all its mitigating attributes would be taken into account.  These cases not only significantly curbed the uniquely American practice of sentencing minors to LWOP, but also, together they stand for the proposition that children are different for purposes of sentencing.

Ten years after the landmark decision in Graham, this symposium will explore the impact that these cases have had on juvenile sentencing in the LWOP context and more broadly. The first of three panels will include practitioners who can provide a firsthand perspective on resentencing hearings and how they are playing out in courtrooms across the country.  The second panel will consider the legislative effects of Graham and will include policymakers working on the ground to pursue related juvenile sentencing reforms. Finally, the closing panel will afford attendees an opportunity to hear directly from individuals affected by Graham, that is, those who were sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles and have now come home.

The Program

1:00 p.m.  Graham v. Florida at the Ten-Year Mark

1:30 p.m.  Resentencing Hearings Post-Graham

2:45 p.m.  Legislative Effects of Graham

4:00 p.m.  Life after Graham

January 30, 2021 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Details on Ohio's new ban of juve LWOP and the broader national landscape

JLWOP202101-1200x802As mentioned in this recent post, Ohio recently enacted a new law largely banning life without parole sentences for juveniles.  Daniel Nichanian has this new piece at The Appeal: Political Report about the law and the national develops in this space. I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts (with links and the graphic from the original):

Ohio is expanding access to parole hearings for people who have been incarcerated ever since they were children.  It will no longer sentence minors to life without the possibility of parole, and it will significantly curtail sentences that effectively amount to the same. 

Youth justice advocates are celebrating Senate Bill 256, which was signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine on Saturday, as their latest win in nationwide efforts to keep kids from spending their life in prison. The law is a “huge sea change” for the state, said Kevin Werner, policy director at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, because “it recognizes that people change. … The heart of the bill is that Ohio values redemption over excessive punishment.”

SB 256, which is retroactive, only affects parole eligibility; it does not guarantee that people actually get released, even after spending decades in prison.  Under the new law, people who committed a crime as a minor will be eligible for parole after no more than 18 years of incarceration if the crime did not involve a homicide, or after no more than 25 to 30 years if it did.  That’s longer than in other states that have recently adopted similar laws....

Ohio is the 24th state, plus D.C., that will stop imposing sentences of juvenile life without parole.  A wave of states have adopted similar reforms since the Supreme Court ended mandatory life without parole sentences for minors in a series of early 2010s rulings.  Oregon, in 2019, and Virginia, in 2020, did this most recently. 

Brooke Burns, who heads the Ohio Public Defender’s Juvenile Department, stresses that SB 256 will also help the state confront significant racial inequalities in its prison population.  “When we think about lengthy sentences, it’s overwhelmingly kids of color who are impacted by that,” said Burns.

These inequalities stem from disparate sentencing, but also the rate at which children of color are transferred to adult court in the first place, especially in counties such as Cuyahoga (Cleveland) that do so very aggressively.

The Appeal reported in 2019 that the office of Prosecuting Attorney Michael O’Malley has been transferring minors to adult court far more than other Ohio jurisdictions.  Ninety-four percent of those who were transferred to adult court in 2018 were Black. 

Ohio’s Legislative Services Commission estimates that 50 to 60 people will immediately become eligible for parole when SB 256 becomes effective; this is approximately the number of people who have served at least 18 years, and in some cases much more, of the sentences they received when they were minors.  Many more will become newly eligible for parole in subsequent years.  The law will apply to most people who are serving outright sentences of life without parole, but also to people whose sentences are functionally equivalent since their parole eligibility was set so far in the future....

In Oregon and Virginia, the two states that most recently adopted laws to end juvenile life without parole, the state government is run by Democrats.  But SB 256 had to pass through Ohio’s GOP-run legislature — which it did with wide bipartisan majorities — and get support from the Republican governor.

January 13, 2021 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 11, 2021

Ohio enacts new laws precluding death penalty for those with "serious mentally illness" and largely eliminating LWOP for juvenile offenders

As detailed in this official notice, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine over the weekend signed a bunch of new bills into law, and two are sure to be of interest to sentencing fans:

House Bill 136, sponsored by Representative Brett Hudson Hillyer, prohibits the death penalty if offender was mentally ill at time of offense. 

Senate Bill 256, sponsored by Senator Nathan Manning and former Senator Peggy Lehner, regards sentencing offenders under the age of 18. 

This local press piece provides a bit of background on these new Ohio laws:

Gov. Mike DeWine has also signed bills taking the death penalty off the table for murders committed by the severely mentally ill... House Bill 136, sponsored by Rep. Brett Hillyer (R., Uhrichsville), prohibits the death penalty for murderers who demonstrate they suffered from a “serious mental illness” at the time of the crime. The most severe punishment would be life without the possibility of parole.

In addition to future cases, the law would open a one-year window for some people currently on death row to ask judges to commute their death sentences. While execution is not an option now for juveniles and the mentally disabled, Ohio law still allows for capital punishment in cases involving mental illness claims that fall short of the threshold for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

“Serious mental illness” is defined as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or any delusional disorder significantly impairing the accused's ability to exercise rational judgment in complying with the law and fully appreciating the consequences of conduct....

Senate Bill 256, sponsored by Sens. Nathan Manning (R., North Ridgeville) and Peggy Lehner (R., Kettering), to remove life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles and to allow for parole hearings for juveniles after certain periods of time in prison.

It will be fascinating to see how these new laws get implemented.  This other local piece, headlined "Mother of murder victim advocated for new parole changes," partially speaks to the application of the juve LWOP law while also highlighting the powerful role that crime victims can play in advancing criminal justice reform:

A bill that will change Ohio's parole options, signed by Governor Mike DeWine on Saturday, was advocated for by a local mother whose son was murdered in South Cumminsville in 2015.

Suliman Abdul-Mutakallim was walking home with food for his family in June, 2015, when he was shot dead and robbed. "When three assailants walked up behind him and shot him in the back of the head, they didn't even say 'stick 'em up.' They just shot him," said Rukiye Abdul-Mutakallim, Suliman's mother.

The three then took $40 from Suliman, stole his phone and the food he was bringing home. For Rukiye, it was difficult to ignore that two of the three responsible for her son's death were children: The youngest was just 14 years old. "I found it unfathomable. These are human beings, aren't they?" said Rukiye. "And then when I saw them in court and they were children? Ahh."...

"For her to recognize that they were children who made terrible, terrible mistakes and has the grace to understand and hold that out to say, 'This is not what I would want for them,' is really remarkable," said Kevin Werner, with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. 

Werner said there are currently 11 prisoners in Ohio affected directly by SB 256, which will retroactively apply to juveniles already convicted and sentenced.  The bill instead adds parole possibilities at 18 years, 25 years and 30 years, depending on the severity of the crime.

"It doesn't go far enough and we know that, but it is the beginning," said Rukiye.... "If we are throwing our babies away, we have no future," said Rukiye.

January 11, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Montana Supreme Court talks through juve LWOP resentencing after Miller

This past Friday, the Montana Supreme Court handed down a notable ruling (with lots of opinions) on the application of the US Supreme Court's juvenile LWOP sentencing jurisprudence and related issues.  The main opinion and various concurring and dissenting opinions in Montana v. Keefe, No. 2021 MT 8 (Mont. Jan. 8, 2021) (available here), all make for interesting reads.  Here are some of the essentials from the majority opinion: 

We agree with the Briones court that post-offense evidence of rehabilitation is clearly required to be considered by a court resentencing a juvenile who is serving a sentence of life without parole.  Because Miller commands a resentencing court to consider “the possibility of rehabilitation” before a juvenile can lawfully be sentenced to life without parole, evidence of rehabilitation in the years since the original crime must be considered by the resentencing court.  This is consistent with the sentencing policy of Montana which does not merely provide for punishment, protection of the public, and restitution, but also for rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders back into the community....

Although we have determined the District Court erred in determining Keefe was “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible” and are reversing his sentence on that basis, we must address whether the issue of the irreparable corruption of a minor is a fact which must be found by a jury.  Keefe has argued, pursuant to Apprendi, that he is constitutionally entitled to have a jury determine whether he is, in fact, “irreparably corrupt” before a possible life without parole sentence.  We disagree....

Here, neither “irreparable corruption” nor “permanent incorrigibility” are facts which could increase a possible sentence.  Rather, youth is a mitigating factor which can reduce the possible sentence for deliberate homicide in Montana.  In accordance with Miller and Steilman, a jury is not required to determine irreparable corruption and permanent incorrigibility — that determination is properly left to the resentencing judge.

January 10, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Seventh Circuit panel upholds 140-year with parole state sentence for 15-year-old offender

Via How Appealing, I just saw an interesting new opinion from the Seventh Circuit in Sanders v. Eckstein, No. 2:11‐cv‐868 (7th Cir. Nov. 30, 2020) (available here).  The start of the opinion explains why I describe the matter as interesting:

Rico Sanders received a 140‐year sentence for raping four women.  He was 15 at the time of the sexual assaults, and his offense conduct was heinous and cruel in the extreme.  Now 40 years old, Sanders will first be‐ come eligible for parole under Wisconsin law in 2030.  He sought post‐conviction relief in state court, arguing that Wisconsin’s precluding him from any meaningful opportunity of parole before 2030 offends the Supreme Court’s holding in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).  Sanders later added a claim that the sentencing court’s failure to meaningfully con‐ sider his youth and prospect of rehabilitation when imposing the 140‐year sentence runs afoul Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). After the Wisconsin courts rejected these claims, Sanders invoked 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and sought relief in federal court.  The district court denied the application, and we now affirm.

Here is a part of the unanimous panel's substantive analysis:

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals determined Sanders’s chance of parole at age 51 — twelve years before his expected end of life at 63 — respects Graham’s requirement of a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” 560 U.S. at 75.  Nothing about that conclusion reflects an unreasonable application of Graham.  In time the Supreme Court may give more definition to what constitutes a “meaningful opportunity” for early release.  For now, however, the Wisconsin court’s conclusion that Sanders will have his first chance at parole at the age of 51 is by no means unreasonable.

December 1, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Rounding up some accounts of SCOTUS oral arguments in Jones, the latest juvenile LWOP case

I listened live yesterday morning to the Supreme Court oral argument in Jones v. Mississippi18-1259, which will address "Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole."  The full argument in Jones is available here, and it is worth the 90 minutes for a full listen because nearly all the Justices were quite engaged and the arguments by counsel were consistently strong and interesting.

If you would rather read accounts of the case and argument, here are a few: 

From Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences, "An Aggressive Interpretation of Precedent

From Amy Howe and SCOTUSblog, "Argument analysis: Justices debate requirements for life sentences for juveniles"

From Nina Totenberg at NPR, "Supreme Court Examines When Juveniles May Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole"

From Steven Erickson at Crime & Consequences, "The Muddy Waters of Miller"

From Mark Walsr at Education Week, "High Court Weighs Whether Juvenile Life Without Parole Requires 'Incorrigibility'"

November 4, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Listening to today's SCOTUS oral argument in two big sentencing cases

The year 2020 has been remarkable for so many reasons, and this morning it means for me a focus on the Supreme Court rather than on voting on this historic 2020 Election Day.  This is because I already voted early (about two weeks ago, in fact), and COVID realities mean that oral arguments are now available in real time.  And because SCOTUS this morning just happens to be hearing its two biggest sentencing cases on the docket, I plan to listen in live.  Here are the basics thanks to SCOTUSblog with links to where all can listen:

Jones v. Mississippi, 18-1259 

Issue: Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.

 LISTEN to Jones HERE

 

Borden v. United States, 19-5410

Issue: Whether the “use of force” clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act encompasses crimes with a mens rea of mere recklessness.

LISTEN to Borden HERE

November 3, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 02, 2020

Background reading before argument in Jones v. Mississippi, the latest SCOTUS foray into Eighth Amendment limits on juve sentencing

Remarkably, it has been more than a decade since the US Supreme Court kicked off its interesting (and uncertain) new line of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence with its ruling in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)Graham declared sentencing juveniles to life without parole (LWOP) for non-homicide offenses to be unconstitutional, and was quickly followed by Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held that mandatory LWOP sentences were unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of homicide. Four years later, Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), declared that Miller was to be applied retroactively, and now Jones v. Mississippi will explore exactly what Miller and these other cases actually mean for discretionary sentencing of juvenile homicide offenders.

A whole lot of amicus briefs have been filed in Jones on both sides, and the US Solicitor General has also weighed in and been granted leave to participate in tomorrow's scheduled oral argument.  Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this preview, which sets up the case this way:

After Miller and Montgomery, state courts can sentence individual juveniles to life without the possibility of parole as long as the sentence is not a mandatory penalty under state law.  On Tuesday, the justices will hear oral argument in a case that asks them to decide what their rulings in Miller and Montgomery require states to do before imposing that sentence.  A Mississippi man contends that the sentencer must find that the juvenile is incapable of rehabilitation, while the state counters that it is enough that the sentencer considered the juvenile’s youth.

For those looking for other background reading beyond the briefs, there have been a number of good commentaries about the issues in this line of rulings published recently:

-- by Brandon Garrett in The Atlantic, "Life Without Parole for Kids Is Cruelty With No Benefit: The United States is the only country that allows this practice, and soon the Supreme Court could get rid of it."

-- by Katie Rose Quandt in In These Times, "The Supreme Court Said Their Sentencing Was Unconstitutional. But They’re Still Behind Bars. Despite SCOTUS rulings against life without parole sentences for juveniles, most who received that sentence remain incarcerated." 

-- by Marc Levin in the Texas Lawyer, "On Election Day, Remember All Youths Are Candidates for Change"

I am looking forward to the Court's consideration of Jones in part because the case presents the three newest Justices with their first big opportunity to weigh in on the Eighth Amendment in a noncapital case.  Based on Justice Gorsuch's work in capital Eighth Amendment cases, I am not expecting him to be a vote for an expansive interpretation of Miller.  But, especially because Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Barrett both are parents to teenage kids, I am wondering if they might be a bit more open to a more expansive view of the Eighth Amendment in this context.

November 2, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 23, 2020

"Framing Individualized Sentencing for Politics and the Constitution"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper now available via SSRN authored by Meghan Ryan. Here is its abstract:

For decades, there was not much growth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation and application of the Eighth Amendment.  In recent years, though, the Court has expanded the Amendment to prohibit executing intellectually disabled and juvenile offenders, to ban capital punishment for all non-homicide offenses against individuals, and to prohibit life-without-parole for juveniles when that punishment was mandatorily imposed or imposed on non-homicide offenders.  With changing politics and a changing Court, any further expansion of Eighth Amendment protections will likely be difficult for years to come.  With the recent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as the newest Supreme Court Justice, the Court is becoming more conservative.  Politics certainly influence law, even at the Supreme Court level, so future changes in politics even outside the Court could affect Eighth Amendment interpretations.  When making Eighth Amendment arguments to the Court, framing is important.

This Article suggests that, in this political landscape, there may be some hope for the expansion of the constitutional requirement of individualized sentencing.  While the Court has historically reserved this requirement for capital cases, its more recent cases have whittled away at the distinction between capital and non-capital cases under the Eighth Amendment.  Further, the Court has already extended its constitutional requirement of individualized sentencing beyond the capital context, at least to some extent.  While recent cases suggest that the Court is positioned to further expand the Eighth Amendment requirement of individualized sentencing, politics will likely have a role to play.  If one carefully frames the argument, there is the potential that persons across the political spectrum may find enhancing individualized sentencing under the Eighth Amendment appealing. 

First, expanding this requirement could result in more progressive sentencing practices, including the prohibition of mandatory sentences and mandatory minimum sentences.  It could also work to effect more humane prison conditions.  Further emphasizing individualized sentencing, however, does come with the risk of weakening uniformity and equality in sentencing.  On the other hand, individualized sentencing may also have appeal across the political aisle with religious conservatives — at least theoretically. Individualized sentencing is rooted in the notion of human dignity, which is central to Christian beliefs.  Further, individualized sentencing allows greater room for reform and rehabilitation, which are often achieved through religious means.  Finally, the increasing practice of individualization throughout our lives — from individualized medicine to individualized advertising — is conditioning Americans to expect enhanced individualization across disciplines.  A heightened constitutional focus on individualized sentencing would be consistent with such expectations.  Further, improved science and technology are regularly arming us with additional tools to better achieve individualized determinations related to sentencing considerations like culpability, deterrence, and rehabilitation.  This provides a foundation for the Court to build on its precedents to increase the Eighth Amendment requirement of individualized sentencing.

October 23, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Arizona Supreme Court rejects Eighth Amendment claims by juvenile offenders given de facto life sentences for multiple offenses

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Arizona handed down a unanimous rejection of claims by multiple juvenile offenders subject to de facto life sentences for multiple sentences in Arizona v. Soto-Fong, No. CR-18-0595 (Ariz. Oct. 9, 2020) (available here).  Here is how the opinion begins and a concluding paragraph:

We consider whether consecutive sentences imposed for separate crimes, when the cumulative sentences exceed a juvenile’s life expectancy, violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”  We conclude that such de facto life sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment, as interpreted in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016). Consequently, Graham, Miller, and Montgomery do not constitute a significant change in the law under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g)....

Despite the shifting and confusing reasoning embodied in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery, we are bound by the Supremacy Clause to faithfully apply this jurisprudence as we fairly construe it.  Davis, 206 Ariz. at 384 ¶ 34 n.4.  But because those cases do not address or implicate de facto juvenile life sentences, we decline Petitioners’ invitation to expand this jurisprudence one step beyond its reach.  Our respect for the separation of powers, the will of our citizens, and principles of judicial restraint, rather than dicta from inapposite cases, compel our decision.  Thus, we hold that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit de facto juvenile life sentences.

As this last quoted paragraph may reveal, the Soto-Fong opinion is full of a good deal of snark about the US Supreme Court's rulings in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery.  Discussing Graham, for example, the Arizona Supreme Court calls part of the SCOTUS ruling "dubious" and then takes a "pause" to express "concern" with the Graham opinion’s reference to international law.  Perhaps it is thus unsurprising that the Arizona Supreme Court was seemingly keen to affirm in this case an "enhanced concurrent and consecutive prison sentences totaling nearly 140 years" for a teenager who committed a series of serious arsons.

October 11, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Great sentencing pieces in 'New Developments in Public Defense Research" collection in Criminal Justice Policy Review

I just came across this great collection of articles under the title "New Developments in Public Defense Research," which appears in the July 2020, issue of the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review. The volume includes seven original papers and an introduction on a range of topics related to public defenders and public defense.  The whole issue is worth checking out, and sentencing fans might be especially interested in these articles:

Including Assets-Based Mitigation in Sentencing by Elizabeth S. Vartkessian

Abstract:  Mitigation evidence consists of information about an accused person that is typically used to advocate for a less severe sentence.  Such evidence most frequently consists of information related to the crime and personal factors that can be separated into two broad categories: deficits and assets-based mitigation.  This article focuses on the importance of assets-based mitigation in sentencing and evaluates if and how state sentencing procedures contemplate and allow for consideration of such evidence.  A content analysis of available state sentencing procedures reveals that states tend to circumscribe mitigation to factors related to the crime or deficits, but largely neglect to give a vehicle to consider assets-based mitigation, which should play a central role in achieving just outcomes.  This article therefore argues for reform to sentencing laws to better accommodate assets-based mitigation by including information related to the defendant’s capacity for growth, self-improvement, and redemption.

 

Decision-Making and Holistic Public Defense Post-Montgomery v. Louisiana by Jeanette Hussemann and Jonah Siegel

Abstract: In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for youth are unconstitutional.  In 2016, the Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the ruling in Miller should be applied retroactively. Drawing from qualitative interviews with justice actors, and individuals who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles and paroled, this article examines the implementation of Miller-Montgomery in Michigan, the factors that influence decisions to release juvenile lifers, and their reentry process.  In doing so, we focus specific attention to the role of publicly appointed defense attorneys and the application of holistic defense practices to support Montgomery case mitigation and juvenile lifer reentry.  Findings indicate that institutional disciplinary and programming records, emotional wellness, statements by victims’ family members, political considerations, and reentry plans are key considerations when deciding whether a juvenile lifer should be eligible for parole.

July 9, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Eight years after Miller and four after Montgomery, many juveniles still waiting for court consideration of their Eighth Amendment rights

The Marshall Project has this lengthy new piece focused on how many juveniles still have not received court consideration of the Eighth Amendment rights recognized a full eight years ago in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). The article's fill headline captures its essence: "'Juvenile Lifers' Were Meant to Get a Second Chance. COVID-19 Could Get Them First. The Supreme Court gave teens sentenced to life in prison a shot at freedom. Many are still waiting."  Here is how the piece gets started:

Darnell Johnson long believed that he would die alone in a prison cell.  In 1998, a Michigan court sentenced him to life behind bars without the possibility of parole for killing a woman and shooting two others during a botched armed robbery when he was 17, court records show.

Johnson had been in prison for more than a decade when the U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings, one in 2012 and another in 2016, that said “juvenile lifers” like him must have their sentences reviewed, taking into account that they were not yet adults when they committed their crimes.  In many states, hundreds saw their prison terms shortened or were released.

But Johnson and nearly 1,000 others incarcerated since their youth across the United States are still waiting for a court hearing — and now they face a growing fear that they will lose their lives to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, before getting their chance at freedom.

Johnson, 40, who is black, has asthma and hypertension, risk factors for serious complications from the coronavirus.  He is incarcerated at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Michigan, one of the nation’s worst prison hot spots with more than 725 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Monday.  “All hope of being released is fading away every minute, every hour, every day,” Johnson said via a prison email app. “To have made it to the ‘finish line’ only to possibly die from this virus is that much more frightening.”

The United States is the only country in the world that sends children to prison with no chance of getting out, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison research organization. Roughly 80 percent of juvenile lifers are people of color. As the pandemic devastates prisons and jails, some governors, parole boards and prosecutors are releasing some prisoners who were serving short sentences for low-level crimes. The rationale is that they are less likely to re-offend, according to public statements by officials. Juvenile lifers have rarely been mentioned in this conversation.

That omission is misguided, prisoner advocates say. “These are human beings who brain science shows have ‘aged out’ of crime,” said Renée Slajda, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a legal advocacy organization. “If you had to pick between people who just got to jail or ones who have decades of good behavior under their belt, which is a safer bet to release?” asked Ashley Nellis, a senior analyst focusing on lifers at The Sentencing Project.

Johnson, for instance, has received just one misconduct ticket during his entire incarceration: in 2001, according to court records.  He also scored a “low” risk rating for violence or re-offending on a corrections department-administered risk assessment, the document shows.  Johnson’s good behavior in prison had given him hope that the 2016 Supreme Court decision, Montgomery v. Louisiana, would apply to him.  The court ruled that because young people’s brains are still developing, along with their awareness of the consequences of their actions, those who had been sent to adult prison for life for crimes committed as children should get an opportunity to be resentenced — a chance to prove they have been redeemed.

When Johnson heard about the decision, he and friends who also were incarcerated as teens were “slapping each other on the back, saying, ‘We made it!’” he said.  Yet his dream of freedom has been deferred nearly five years because of court delays and because his prosecutor, who has the ability to grant him a shorter sentence, has been unwilling to do so.  At a hearing in December, Johnson will have the chance to challenge the prosecuting attorney’s decision, citing the Supreme Court ruling, says his attorney, Sofia Nelson of Michigan’s State Appellate Defender Office.

Johnson is one of about 200 of Michigan’s more than 350 juvenile lifers who have yet to receive a new sentence, according to court and prison records.  That is the most of any state.  Michigan is also third only to Ohio and Texas with more than 3,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people, according to The Marshall Project’s tracker. Johnson said he has watched his prison friends catch the virus and worries he could be next.

June 3, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)