Children are Different: Constitutional Values and Juvenile Justice Policy
The emerging principle that “children are different” from adult offenders will direct the future course of juvenile justice says a new paper in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law. In the essay, Elizabeth S. Scott examines how three Supreme Court opinions have created a special status for juveniles under the Eighth Amendment, the science backing this, and the implications for juvenile crime regulation.
Scott identifies the “children are different” approach in the cases Miller v. Alabama, Graham v. Florida and Roper v. Simmons, three instances in the last seven years of the Supreme Court holding that harsh criminal sentences―life without parole and the death penalty―on juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. According to Scott, these opinions are a marked departure from hostile policies of the 90s ignoring the differences between juveniles and adults, and one which has been spurred by advances in developmental science.
A growing body of research illustrates specific behavioral and neurobiological differences between adolescents and adults that also distinguish them as offenders. The Court focused on three factors: adolescents’ tendency for taking risks without considering future consequences, their vulnerability to external influences, particularly peers, and the transient nature of these and other developmental influences. These traits set juveniles apart from adults, and thereby warrant their differential treatment. They also speak to adolescents’ unique capacity for reform, pressing the case for developmentally based correctional programs over the costly and often less effective route of imprisonment.
Scott lists four key lessons for lawmakers arising from this trend:
7 Core Principles to Change the Course of Youth Justice
A new article from the New York Law School Law Review examines the problems with the juvenile justice system and offers solutions for a more productive youth justice system. “When the Cure Makes You Ill: Seven Core Principles to Change the Course of Youth Justice,” calls the extremity of youth justice to trial and shares statistics of the negative effects the system has on children.
Our current juvenile justice system is “iatrogenic,” says author Gabrielle Prisco. Being in the system worsens outcomes for troubled teens and more often than not, results in violence and recidivism -- the very same outcome it tries to remedy.
Prisco outlines seven core principles to change the course of youth justice:
Principle One: Treat Children as Children
Research shows children lack critical thinking skills and the ability to fully understand risk management. “The region of the brain that is the last to develop is the one that controls many of the abilities that govern goal-oriented, ‘rational’ decision-making, such as long-term planning, impulse control, insight, and judgment,” writes Prisco. Children who are incarcerated in an adult jail are thirty-six times more likely to commit suicide because they are not properly cared for in a youth facility, yet thirty-nine states in the United States presently allow juveniles to be tried in adult court and sentenced to life without the chance of parole (JLWOP).
California Gives JLWOP Kids Second Chance
On Sunday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act to give some kids sentenced to life without parole an opportunity to earn a second chance. California currently has 309 inmates who could be affected by this.
Under the new law, people who were convicted of murder or other serious crimes as juveniles can petition a judge for reconsideration of their sentences. They can only do that after they’ve served 15 years. An inmate must show remorse and be enrolled in rehabilitative programs.
If an inmate meets the criteria, a judge could decide to shorten his or her sentence to 25 years to life with a chance for parole. The inmate would then go through the same vetting process that all offenders undergo when they’re up for parole.
Restoring Rehabilitation to the American Juvenile Justice System
Quantel Lotts was fourteen years old and not yet five feet tall when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Like most children who are involved in a serious crime at a young age, Quantel's childhood [PDF] was bleak. Quantel spent the early years of his life in a blighted St. Louis neighborhood with his mother, who used and sold crack cocaine. When he was removed from her home and placed in foster care at age eight, child welfare workers observed that he "smelled of urine and had badly decayed molars as well as numerous scars on his arms, legs and forehead." Quantel lived in three different foster homes before he was eventually reunited with his father and younger brother. When Quantel was about ten, his father, Charlie Lotts, moved the boys to rural St. Francois County, Missouri and into the home of Tammy Summers and her two sons. Charlie and Tammy later married.
By all accounts, Quantel developed a close relationship with his new step-siblings, including Michael, who was three years older. On November 13, 1999, however, Quantel and Michael got into an argument. Michael hit Quantel with a blow dart, Quantel responded with a toy bow and arrow and a fight ensued. Michael was stabbed and later died. Quantel was charged with first-degree murder, tried and convicted as an adult. His sentence was mandatory: under Missouri law anyone convicted of first-degree murder must be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Over the objections of his stepmother and Michael's biological mother, Tammy, fourteen-year-old Quantel was sentenced to die in prison.
CA Supreme Court Prohibits Lengthy Sentences for Teens Convicted of Non-Homicide Crimes
The California Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling last week in People v. Caballero, holding that a term of years sentence that is effectively a defacto life without parole sentence for a juvenile in a non-homicide case violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida. In Graham, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles convicted of non- homicide offenses could not be sentenced to life without parole under the Eighth Amendment. In its unanimous decision, the California Court wrote: “We must determine here whether a 110-year-to- life sentence imposed on a juvenile convicted of nonhomicide offenses contravenes Graham’s mandate against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. We conclude it does.”
Rodrigo Caballero was represented by California attorney David Durchfort. Caballero was 16 years old when he opened fire on three teenage boys who were members of a rival gang, injuring one of the teens. Caballero was found guilty on three counts of attempted homicide and was sentenced to a term of 110 years, making him eligible for parole consideration in 2112 – a century from now. “For the first time, a state Supreme Court ruled that very lengthy prison terms for juveniles who did not kill are unconstitutional if the sentence does not afford a meaningful opportunity of release,” said Durchfort. “Rodrigo Caballero’s family is grateful that he will now have that opportunity.”
After SCOTUS Decisions, States Slowly Lightening Juvenile Sentences
As Supreme Court arguments from two key juvenile sentencing decisions trickle down through courts and legislatures nationwide, the heaviest sentences for juveniles may be on the verge of shedding some weight.
“Graham and Miller put a constitutional ceiling on what states can do to kids,” argues Los Angeles attorney David Durchfort, continuing, “the big question now is what’s the safe zone? How far can they [states] go in punishing kids without giving them a second chance?”
Graham and Miller, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 and 2012 respectively, bar state laws that mandate life without parole sentences for juveniles.
In both cases, the court said children are immature from a brain chemistry point of view. Therefore they are more corrigible and less culpable than adults and cannot rightfully be sentenced to life without parole until a judge takes that youthfulness into consideration. Children, they argued, should have a meaningful chance at rehabilitation and release.
Appeals Accepted in First Miller Cases: Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentence Challenged
Less than three weeks after a Supreme Court ruling mandated it, an Iowa court gives two inmates the right to appeal the life without parole sentences they were given years ago when they were 17 years old.
“We’re thrilled to see these concrete steps being made,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “They are obviously required to do so,” she added.
The Iowa cases may be the first nationwide re-opened under Miller v. Alabama.
The Supreme Court said in Miller that sentencing judges must consider mitigating factors in dealing with juvenile homicide cases. That invalidates about 2,400 sentences nationwide in federal courts and the 28 states where juveniles have been sent to life without parole under mandatory sentencing schemes. Mandatory sentencing laws ignore age, youth brain development, life history and all other factors.
Boston University Students Win AP Award for JLWOP Series
Most students entering Anne Donohue’s narrative radio class had no idea how to record and edit audio, nor did they have an ear for what makes a good story. But that didn’t stop the Boston University (BU) College of Communication (COM) associate professor from handing them a tough assignment: analyze all angles of juvenile life-without-parole sentences, and come back with a story.
The results were impressive—Donohue’s students produced a six-part series titled “Life Without Parole: Juvenile Justice?” which this spring won the Associated Press award for best college documentary. And the subject was timely, as the Supreme Court ruled last week that juvenile life-without-parole sentences violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Teenagers should not be locked up for life, at great expense to the taxpayer, if there is a chance they can be rehabilitated or mature into productive members of society,” says Donohue (COM’88), an award-winning radio producer and editor. “If a teen who kills is psychologically damaged and is a truly dangerous sociopath, he belongs in a mental health facility, not a prison. And some of these kids who have been locked up for life were not even the killers, but accomplices who drove cars or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The Ultimate Impact of Miller v. Alabama?
As Professor Dan Filler (Drexel) points out so well in a recent post on Miller v. Alabama on the Faculty Lounge, the decision’s direct effect on those currently serving juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) may be less dramatic than first imagined. Sentencing rehearings during which mitigating evidence is considered could lead merely to a reimposition of LWOP or a lengthy term of years sentence (40, 50, 60 years) that is the practical equivalent of LWOP. This is not to diminish the value of giving these 2100 prisoners an opportunity for review, reduction of their sentences, and the possibility of eventual release., although as Professor Filler also observed, much will depend there on the quality of defense counsel.
Instead, as I wrote two years ago in regard to Graham v. Florida, which struck down the practice of JLWOP for non-homicides, the ultimate impact of Miller will be seen in its precedential effect:
Supreme Court Rules Mandatory Life Without Parole Unconstitutional for Juveniles
In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) today ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder are unconstitutional. Justice Elena Kegan wrote the majority opinion, which focused on the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Writing at the SCOTUSblog, Tejinder Singh elaborates on the decision:
The Court’s opinion brings together two strands of precedent to hold that a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment. The first strand holds that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits punishments that enact a mismatch between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of the penalty. Citing, among cases, Roper and Graham, the Court explains that juveniles have always been regarded as less culpable because the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest penalties on juvenile offenders, even when they commit severe crimes. The second line of precedent holds that life without parole shares key characteristics with the death penalty, and thus raises similar Eighth Amendment concerns, most notably that defendants are entitled to individualized consideration when facing such a severe sanction.
Weaving these two lines of precedent together, the Court held that mandatory life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment. Such sentencing regimes, the court explained, “preclude a sentence from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” including “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” as well as the juvenile’s “family and home environment,” and the circumstances of the offense, including “the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.” By eliding these key factors, mandatory life without parole “poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.”