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DOJ Settles Suit to End Solitary for Juveniles in Ohio

Some welcome news. The Department of Justice today announced a settlement of its suit against Ohio over the states juvenile detention policies.

The United States and private plaintiffs announced today that it has reached an agreement with the state of Ohio, under which the State Department of Youth Services (DYS) will dramatically reduce, and eventually eliminate, its use of seclusion on young people in its custody. DYS will also ensure that young people in its juvenile facilities receive individualized mental health treatment to prevent and address the conditions and behaviors that led to seclusion. The order resolves allegations that the state subjects young people with mental health needs in its custody to harmful seclusion and withholds treatment and programming, in violation of their constitutional rights.

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WI Upholds Life Without Parole for 14 Year Old

Omer Ninham was 14 when he was part of a group of kids that killed a 13 year old by throwing him off the top of a parking garage. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Wisconsin Supreme Court today upheld the sentence. The opinion is here. The defense argued:

Ninham mounts a categorical constitutional challenge, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life imprisonment without parole is cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6 of the Wisconsin Constitution. In the alternative, Ninham seeks sentence modification on the grounds that (1) his sentence is unduly harsh and excessive; (2) new scientific research regarding adolescent brain development constitutes a new factor that frustrates the purpose of the sentence; and (3) the circuit court relied on an improper factor when imposing the sentence.

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Michigan Judge Sentences 15 Year Old to Life Without Parole

14 year old Dakota Eliason shot and killed his grandfather. He said he went back and forth for hours debating whether to kill him or commit suicide, and decided to on the former.

The DA charged him in adult court. Monday, a Michigan judge imposed a sentence of life without parole, finding it violated neither the Constitution nor international treaties. He rejected a sentence of life with parole saying the law didn't authorize it. His opinion is here. His lawyer disagrees:

“Anyone that's spent any time around that kid will tell you he's a loving kid, certainly at his point, people that don't know him are defining him by the one terrible thing he did but he does have remorse he does wish he could take it back,” said defense attorney Lanny Fisher.

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NM Supreme Court Rejects Constitutional Rights in Juvenile Sentencing

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to sentence a defendant to more than the statutory maximum provided for a crime unless the facts supporting the enhancement are proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Via Sentencing Law and Policy, the New Mexico Supreme Court has decided that Apprendi does not apply to juveniles and upheld a 25 year sentence for a child. The opinion is here.

From the dissent by Justice Edward Chavez:

The Framers of the Bill of Rights would be alarmed to learn that a child can be condemned to an adult prison for up to a life sentence without at least the same constitutional protections afforded adults.

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Supreme Court Restricts LWOP For Juveniles

The Supreme Court today ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than murder.

The United States is the only country in the world that allows life sentences without parole for juveniles.

An estimated 111 defendants in the United States have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for crimes other than murder committed when they were under age 18. About 70 percent of them are imprisoned in Florida.

Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, available here: [More...]

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Sleepwalking Teen Who Killed Sibling: Adult or Juvenile Charges?

A judge in Colorado Springs is taking this weekend to decide whether a 13 year old, who fatally shot his brother and stabbed and shot his mother (she survived) should be tried as a teen or adult.

Experts testified the boy was sleep-walking and in a trance at the time, unaware of what he was doing. He had no prior history of misconduct. His parents are pleading with the court to have him tried as a juvenile. The prosecutors want him tried as an adult for second-degree murder.

Daniel Gudino is accused of shooting his 9-year-old brother, Ulysses Jr., to death and shooting and stabbing his mother, Marina, on May 18, 2009, in the family’s home at 1837 Chapel Hills Drive.

Marina Gudino told 4th Judicial District Judge David L. Shakes that her son should not be punished for their failure to recognize the seriousness of his symptoms. Doctors testified during the week that the boy suffered from sleep disorders, hallucinations and possibly a developing mental illness.

The judge has heard 40 hours of testimony on the issue. Of course he should be tried as a juvenile. It's why we have a juvenile justice system. This case also shows why it is critical there be independent and neutral judicial oversight of these charging decisions, and that prosecutors not be allowed to make the final call on their own.

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PA Judge Rules 12 Year Old Should be Tried as Adult for Murder

Via Sentencing Law and Policy comes the story of Jordan Brown. Jordan is 12 years old. When he was 11, prosecutors say he took his shotgun and killed his pregnant stepmother while she was in bed, then left for school. The theory seems to be he was mad he lost his bedroom to make way for the new baby. He had no prior contact with the criminal justice system and had always been a polite, typical kid. Even today, the doctors say there is no sign of mental illness.

Jordan's father and family friends are standing by Jordan. They, and his lawyer, say Jordan is innocent.

A judge in Pittsburgh ruled this week that Jordan should be tried as an adult. If convicted, he will be the youngest person in the nation sentenced to life without parole. [More...]

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NY: A Brutal Failure of a Juvenile Injustice System

The release of this draft report (pdf)on New York's juvenile justice system should be eye-opening. To call the system failed, horrific and beyond the pale of acceptable policy doesn't begin to describe it.

The New York Times reports here.

The report, prepared by a task force appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson and led by Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, comes three months after a federal investigation found that excessive force was routinely used at four prisons, resulting in injuries as severe as broken bones and shattered teeth. The situation was so serious the Department of Justice, which made the investigation, threatened to take over the system.

The financial aspect is also absurd: New York is spending $210,000 per child to keep these juveniles, more than 50 % of whom were sentenced for misdemeanors, locked up. And,

More than 80 percent were black or Latino, even though blacks and Latinos make up less than half the state’s total youth population — a racial disparity that has never been explained, the report said.

This is a system in crisis, and New York needs to address it -- sooner, rather than later.

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Justice Roberts Signals No Ban on Life in Prison for Juveniles

Chief Justice John Roberts signaled today at oral arguments in the Supreme Court in two cases involving the constitutionality of life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes, that he's not inclined to find them unconstitutional. Neither are Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

More receptive were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens. (Update: transcripts of oral arguments here and here.)

Roberts suggested allowing a case by case review for proportionality rather than a constitutional ban.

Background on the cases is here. A more positive analysis of today's arguments at the LA Times. CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen at Vanity Fair makes a good point about a related issue:

The same rationale behind the stupendous rise in our prison population retribution over rehabilitation has given rise to the practical demise of consistently meaningful parole review.

My view: Parole exists for good reason. It should not be used to convert life with parole into life without parole sentences.

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Supreme Court To Hear Death in Prison for Teens Cases

(Bumped. And Sentencing Law and Policy has lots more links.)On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear two cases challenging laws imposing life sentences without parole on juveniles who are not convicted of murder.

The cases are both from Florida: The Equal Justice Initiative has an excellent synopsis of Florida v. Sullivan and Sullivan v. Graham in layman's terms.

Both cases ask the Court to address whether the differences between children and adults that led the Court to strike down the death penalty for children also make permanent imprisonment a constitutionally impermissible punishment for a child.

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Houston Chronicle Examines Juvenile Waivers to Adult Court

While the unwise policy of trying and punishing juvenile offenders as if they were adults grew in popularity during the nation's "tough on crime" years, laws permitting waiver to adult court still require judges in most cases to make an individualized determination whether waiver is appropriate for a particular child charged with a particular crime. Texas law follows that pattern.

Before certifying a child, juvenile judges are supposed to hold a hearing and review evidence about the seriousness and nature of the offense, a child’s maturity and background, the likelihood of rehabilitation and the need for protection for the community, according to state law.

Those hearings are often time consuming and complex, as dueling experts (including social workers, psychologists, teachers and probation agents) provide the judge with the detailed information needed to make an informed waiver decision. Except in Harris County where, according to a Houston Chronicle investigation, judges routinely rubber-stamp waiver requests after holding 15 minute hearings. [more ...]

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Supreme Court to Review Life Without Parole For Children

The Supreme Court Justices are obviously avid TalkLeft readers. How else to explain the Court's agreement to decide whether the imposition of a sentence of "life without parole" upon a juvenile offender for a crime other than murder is constitutional? After all, the Court granted certiorari in two cases raising the issue yesterday, just four days after this TalkLeft post declared such sentences to be "costly, cruel and foolish." When TalkLeft speaks, the Supreme Court listens!

Yeah, right. To be fair, the Justices might be readers of the Los Angeles Times editorial page, from which the "costly, cruel and foolish" language was borrowed. Or maybe they just thought the issue had merit. If so, they were right.

If, as the Court reasoned in Roper v. Simmons, the death penalty is unconstitutional when applied to crimes committed by children because children are "immature, unformed, irresponsible and susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure," the penalty of life without parole suffers from the same infirmity. It assumes that a child, whose intellectual and emotional development is incomplete, will never change, even after reaching adulthood, and therefore deserves no chance of parole. [more ...]

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Sentencing Kids to Life Without Parole: Costly, Cruel & Foolish

Yesterday's riff on the cruel and misguided policy of prosecuting and punishing children as if they were adults -- inspired by news that 14-year-old Kearie Brown will be tried in adult court -- shares the sentiment expressed today in a Los Angeles Times editorial that calls for a ban on "life without parole" sentences for juveniles:

Children, even really bad ones, are different from adults. That basic truth is the foundation of our juvenile justice system, which seeks to protect society from violent youth while recognizing that they haven't yet developed an adult's brainpower, resistance to peer pressure, judgment and thus moral capacity. ...

[L]ocking up children as young as 14 for life without even the most remote possibility of parole ... [is] costly, cruel and foolish.

Judges who impose harsh sentences often claim that severe punishment deters others who might be tempted to commit a similar crime. That rationale, dubious when applied to adults, is wholly misguided when applied to children who haven't developed the ability to understand or envision the lifelong consequences of impulsive action. As the editorial reminds us: [more ...]

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No Matter the Alleged Crime, A 14 Year Old Kid Is Still A Kid

Kearie Brown is charged with felony murder in Kansas City. She allegedly shot a 16-year-old in the head as he tried to drive away from a carjacking. Kearie was 13 at the time.

Understandably, the victim's father finds it difficult to wrap his head around the accusation that a 13-year-old girl killed his son.

"It's hard to even begin to know how to feel about it. I can't hate a child," said [Scott] Sappington Sr.

At 14, Kearie is indeed a child. But when she goes to court she'll be tried as if she were an adult. It is as if the juvenile justice system hates children. [more ...]

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CA Fights to Keep Adult Labeled Psycopathic Killer in Juvenile Custody

Prosecutors say Donald Schmidt is a psychopath. Maybe he is. They say he has serious difficulty controlling his dangerous behavior. That might be true, although he's been in custody for more than 20 years and has therefore had no opportunity to demonstrate volitional control in an unconfined setting. During that time, according to his public defender, Schmidt has earned a high school diploma, has served as a grief counselor, and has excelled in treatment.

Putting aside the ongoing debate over the wisdom of detaining people in what amounts to a correctional setting out of fear that they might cause harm if given their freedom, Schmidt's continuing detention by the State of California is particularly appalling because, at the age of 37, he is being held in juvenile custody.

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