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 ...]

That the reasoning is parallel does not guarantee that the Supreme Court will apply a death penalty precedent to a lesser punishment than death. The Supreme Court has often declared that "death is different," and the finality associated with death might be viewed as having a different character than the finality of life without parole.

Still, Justice Scalia argued in his Roper dissent that the majority's condemnation of juvenile death sentences would logically extend to sentences of life without parole. If Justice Scalia said so, it must be true.

On the other hand, Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Roper observed that the death penalty was unnecessary to deter juvenile crime because the possibility of being sentenced to life without parole would remain as an effective deterrent. Does that box in Justice Kennedy, or will he deem that language inapplicable since the cases before the Court don't involve murders? It's one thing to take away a child's freedom forever as punishment for murder, and another to do so as punishment for a home invasion.

Just as interesting is whether Justice Kennedy (or the other Justices) will be inclined to look at international norms to decide what is "cruel and unusual" in the United States. Justice Kennedy did so in Roper and was criticized by a vast army of right wing punditry (and by Justice Scalia). Will he shy away from recognizing the evolving standards of decency that have shaped the rest of the western world, or will he be moved by the recognition that "[t]he United States is alone in the world in making routine use of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders"?

That the Court accepted the cases for review indicates that at least four Justices think the issue is worth deciding. My prediction is that the decision will be 5-4 with Justice Kennedy casting the deciding vote. My ability to predict how he'll vote is about as reliable as a coin toss. Progressives can only hope that Justice Kennedy is an avid TalkLeft reader ... or at least that he respects the LA Times editorial board.

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    the facts about JLWOP (5.00 / 3) (#25)
    by End JLWOP on Tue May 05, 2009 at 09:47:25 PM EST
    There are more than 2,500 people in the United States serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP)-- 60 % of them are first time offenders. 25% of them are in for "felony murder," so they may have been present at the time of the crime, but they were not the primary perpetrator.  10 states either prohibit use of this sentence of have not ever decided to impose it on a youth.  It's clearly not an issue of public safety.

    JLWOP strips hope from people who committed crimes when they were under 18-- an age when they cannot vote, serve in the military, or drink alcohol. Why? Because science has shown us they are fundamentally different from adults-- their brains are not fully developed. AND, as we know from behavioral research, they have more potential for reform and rehabilitation.  There is no excuse for our nation to stand alone in the world on this and impose this sentence on youth given all we know about the differences between youth and adults, ESPECIALLY when it isn't needed to keep our communities safe.

    Requiring reviews of life sentences given to youth is the just alternative. They will not allow dangerous people to be released to the streets.  Instead, they will ensure that those people who were sentenced to life without parole as youth, and who do not pose a threat to society, have the opportunity to be released before they die.  

    clarification (5.00 / 0) (#32)
    by Bemused on Wed May 06, 2009 at 07:10:48 AM EST
    "Felony murder" does NOT necessarily  mean the person is not the killer. Felony murder often applies where a person is the killer.

      Felony murder is a class of first degree murder where the State does not have to prove premeditation if the killing occurred in the course of the commission of certain felonies.


    Question (none / 0) (#1)
    by jbindc on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:11:49 PM EST
    You said:

    It's one thing to take away a child's freedom forever as punishment for murder, and another to do so as punishment for a home invasion.

    One of these kids was 13 and was convicted of raping a 72 year-old woman, and prior to that, he had been found guilty of 17 criminal offenses, including several serious felonies, in the two previous years.

    The other case is of a 17 year-old who took part in an armed home-invasion robbery while he was on probation for a violent crime.

    As a criminal defense attorney, what would be your recommendation punishment for these two violent criminals?  If they should not be held for life without parole, what would be just sentences?  Letting them go at 18?  10 years? 20 years?

    My view (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Bemused on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:17:31 PM EST
      would be that none of us have enough information to offer an informed opinion as to what the appropriate punishment would be in a specific case because we don't have the facts about the offense and the offender necessary to make such judgments.

      That doesn't mean one can't have the opinion that certain punishments (death or life w/o eligibility for parole) should not be imposed upon minors.


    You're right (none / 0) (#3)
    by jbindc on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:19:53 PM EST
    It should be case by case, so I would disagree if the SC would come back and say that a state cannot impose life without parole on a minor. I don't think juveniles should automatically get a reprieve at 18 or 21 because they were minors when they committed their crimes.

    As I pointed out in the prior thread (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by Bemused on Tue May 05, 2009 at 04:51:17 PM EST
      the choice need not be (and I don't think it should be) between automatic release from juvenile jurisdiction at age 21 and imposition of life sentences under adult jurisdiction.

      A "third way" as I called it would make a lot of sense. A system  where courts can retain jurisdiction over minor offenders past 21 and keep them incarcerated in appropriate facilities and conduct review to determine whether a person should be released not by virture of age but by virtue of rehabilitation and self-improvement could be established.


    "third way" (none / 0) (#29)
    by diogenes on Wed May 06, 2009 at 04:48:16 AM EST
    Better to fix the initial sentence.  The first-time offenders who were present during a burglary but didn't kill anyone shouldn't get LWOP.  The kid who raped the 72 year old and had many prior offenses quite possibly is a glib and charming sociopath who can quite effectively play the prison "rehab" game to get released in 5-10 years.  

    Bear in mind (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by Steve M on Tue May 05, 2009 at 04:57:06 PM EST
    even Charles Manson does not have life without parole.  It's not like giving someone a parole hearing means everyone is going to forget about their horrendous crimes.

    Charles Manson (none / 0) (#21)
    by MrConservative on Tue May 05, 2009 at 08:49:47 PM EST
    was sentenced before LWOP was widely put into effect.  LWOP is mostly a modern phenomenon.  Manson's sentence is effectively without parole, however, because I don't see a modern parole board agreeing to release him, or a modern governor signing off on that.

    Just saying (none / 0) (#34)
    by Steve M on Wed May 06, 2009 at 11:29:21 AM EST
    that giving a brutal killer the opportunity for parole doesn't necessarily mean that much.

    Manson was sentenced to death, but (none / 0) (#35)
    by oculus on Wed May 06, 2009 at 11:35:12 AM EST
    death penalty was wiped out for awhile in CA, so he became a person sentenced to life.  

    I think (none / 0) (#24)
    by MrConservative on Tue May 05, 2009 at 09:04:17 PM EST
    That the maximum sentence should be about 20 years to life.  Maybe 25.  In most countries, the maximum is around 15.  If, when they are mature adults, they are still a danger, then a true life sentence can still be given in retrospect, through denial of parole.

    I agree with the sentiment, but what is the rule? (none / 0) (#4)
    by fuzzyone on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:20:25 PM EST
    The Supreme Court likes rules.  If the say no Life Without Parole states can just sentence people to 99 years.  This means that for a decision to have any real impact the court would have to set some limit on juvenile sentences, which I have trouble seeing them doing.  I'd be interested to see what the briefing will argue on this.

    Yes (none / 0) (#6)
    by Bemused on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:49:44 PM EST
     that's a good point. The court would need to set a maximum term a minor could be incarcerated without being eligible for consideration of release and afforded a review with at least minimal due process protections.

    So, (none / 0) (#5)
    by bocajeff on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:42:28 PM EST
    the victims of the crimes didn't suffer as much because the perpetrators were juveniles?

    How about when the criminals are released they have to live with either the judge or the attorneys who represent them (and that they assume responsibility for their actions).

    Having vented I say on a case by case basis..

    The issue under discussion (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by jondee on Tue May 05, 2009 at 04:13:41 PM EST
    isnt how much suffering was incurred, the issue, I believe, is does the importance of a concept of an age of reason/consent mean anything anymore? If not, maybe we should repeal the child labor laws and not sweat it anymore when red staters want to marry their thirteen year old cousins.

    But Jerry Lee Lewis, FDR, and Polanski (5.00 / 2) (#16)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue May 05, 2009 at 05:42:25 PM EST
    were/are Democrats.

    Well, no (none / 0) (#11)
    by Bemused on Tue May 05, 2009 at 04:44:10 PM EST
      the severity of the crime, which obviously includes consideration of the harms caused, is a very much an issue; it's just not the only the issue and one which must be BALANCED against comprting issues such as the youth of the offender in determining whether a punishment is unconstitutional.

      The same punishment might be constitutional for one offense and not for  another, which is why some think the Courtn might be intending to limit the holding in these cases to crimes other than murder. (The Court also denied cert a couple of years ago in a case involving murders by a juvenile raising essentially the same arguments which is another reason for the speculation)


    I dont see how you can have (none / 0) (#14)
    by jondee on Tue May 05, 2009 at 05:09:50 PM EST
    it both ways,though. How does degree of "severity" demand that society throw away it's standards, arrived at through decades of study of the cognitive and moral developement of humans, in order to appease those who seem to believe that certain kinds of criminal behavior automatically indicate a complete inability on the part of some juveniles to become responsible,contributing members of society?

    It's not having anything "both ways" (5.00 / 1) (#31)
    by Bemused on Wed May 06, 2009 at 07:05:39 AM EST
      It's a suggestion that "the way" to determine sentences for minor offenders should provide for mechanisms to incarcerate minors beyond an arbitrary juridictional age (21 in most cases now) without requiring transfer to adult jurisdiction to accomplish that.

      I also do not believe that life without possibility of parole sentences should be available for offenders who are children. I do believe that at the initial disposition  determining the length of the minimum and maximum permissible period of incarceration  should be determined through consideration of the severity of the crime, chronological age of the offender, developmental issues, rheabilitative prognosis  etc.

       I also believe that decisions of whether to release an offender once eligible for release but prior to expiration of the maximum should also consider those factors.



    In some cases it does not matter (none / 0) (#15)
    by nyjets on Tue May 05, 2009 at 05:31:43 PM EST
    SOme crimes, regardless of the age, are so heinous that the criminal should NEVER get out of prison.
    Furthermore, these studies refer to a group of people, not individuals. SOme individuals fall within the studies. Other do not. Therefore, instead of having a blanket, everyone gets life or no one gets life, it should be applied on a case by case basis. Some kid criminals get life, others do not.

    Kids getting life (5.00 / 2) (#17)
    by jondee on Tue May 05, 2009 at 06:01:51 PM EST
    or death is a travesty, IMO. And, as Ali said, aint nothin' gonna change my mind. Stuck in my ways, I guess.

    You say (5.00 / 2) (#23)
    by MrConservative on Tue May 05, 2009 at 09:00:55 PM EST
    "Some crimes, regardless of age..."

    Why regardless of age?  This is just a statement.  This isn't an argument.

    A thirteen year old is clearly not a fully developed human being.  Numerous studies have show that a person isn't even truly developed until they are TWENTY-FIVE.

    Some people are just so undeveloped that, no matter what their crime, they should not be sentenced to death, either by injection or confinement.  You are punishing something different than they are when they are mature.  It is cruelty and unacceptable in a civilized society.


    Age should not be an excuse from punishments (none / 0) (#26)
    by nyjets on Tue May 05, 2009 at 10:39:26 PM EST
    "A thirteen year old is clearly not a fully developed human being.  Numerous studies have show that a person isn't even truly developed until they are TWENTY-FIVE"

    Those studies are generalizations. They do not mean that every person is fully developed at 25. Some can be fully developed at a younger age. Other much latter.

    I am not advocating death penalities for young people. Honestly, I am not an advocate for the death penality (except in one specific incedent. When someone is already sentenced to life without parole murders someone) as long as there exist life without parole.

    Some people are not entitied to second chances. There crimes are simply to heinous. My not at least having the possiblity of life without parole for young people, not only do you prevent justice for the victim, you have the very good chance to create more victims when the young person/ crimial is put back on the streets.


    the Court's agreement to decide (none / 0) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:50:16 PM EST
    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?
    [my bolds]

    Is that what the article says?

    not explicitly (none / 0) (#19)
    by TChris on Tue May 05, 2009 at 07:06:33 PM EST
    but the two cases accepted for review involved crimes other than murder. The Court could announce a broad rule that applies to murder cases also (and will certainly do so if it upholds life w/o parole), but the narrow issue presented by these cases is whether life w/o parole is constitutional when imposed for crimes other than murder.

    I don't think (none / 0) (#22)
    by MrConservative on Tue May 05, 2009 at 08:54:13 PM EST
    there's any chance of this supreme court getting rid of all juvenile LWOP.  But there is a chance they may limit that process.  It all depends on Kennedy.  Of course, cert is granted by only four members, which was probably the four liberals.  So Kennedy hasn't decided one way or the other yet.

    Hopefully a future court will strike down the horrendous practice totally.


    Thanks, I get it now. (none / 0) (#28)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed May 06, 2009 at 01:07:12 AM EST
    I believe (none / 0) (#8)
    by Bemused on Tue May 05, 2009 at 03:57:26 PM EST
      the article itself is merely speculating that the Supreme Court may limit the holding because both cases involve cases other than murder so the Court could rule on the more narrow question if it chose.

    Thanks, makes sense. (none / 0) (#9)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue May 05, 2009 at 04:02:50 PM EST
    When children commit heinous crimes (none / 0) (#27)
    by nellre on Tue May 05, 2009 at 11:52:14 PM EST
    Society at large must share the blame.

    This is what's missing in the equation... we are supposed to be taking care of our children! Instead we are punishing them for our failures.

    I know some folks are born sociopaths, and there isn't much we can do about that except confine them... but I would think the burden of proof that the child was not the victim of neglect would rest squarely on the prosecution.

    We blame the owners when a dog (e.g. pit bull) mauls somebody. A child isn't a dog, of course, but a child is the responsibility of somebody somewhere... right?

    Not really. (none / 0) (#30)
    by Fabian on Wed May 06, 2009 at 05:15:02 AM EST
    A child is legally someone else's responsibility, but that doesn't make it so in reality.  

    society at large (none / 0) (#33)
    by Bemused on Wed May 06, 2009 at 07:21:48 AM EST
      is to blame for the specific acts of specific individuals?

      What exactly does that mean?  Everyone is responsible to some degree for every crime and everyone should be punished to some extent every time a crime is proven? Or do you mean to suggest that people should be relived of responsibility for their own acts because society is so imperfect?

      After making the assertion "society at large" is to blame you then further confuse the issue by speaking of specific (but unspecified) people being responsible for the actions of children. Who are those people? Parents? Other relatives? Teachers? The guy across the street? The public official who shares responsibility for inadequate social programs?

       Are you suggesting we should pass laws establishing criminal offenses to punish these people for their perceived failures if someone wh lives in our imperfect world commits a crime?


    K.R.A.P. (none / 0) (#36)
    by brew on Wed May 06, 2009 at 12:56:20 PM EST
    Society must share the blame? The prosecution has to prove the child was NOT a victim? I want you on my jury.

    And I'd avoid using the pit bull analogy. We blame the owners, but we usually kill the dog.


    I must be an alien from another planet (none / 0) (#37)
    by nellre on Thu May 07, 2009 at 01:30:36 AM EST
    The responses to my post are incomprehensible to me.
    How can we as a society and a culture abandon the responsibility of our children?

    If a child drowns it's because of inadequate supervision. Who will argue that? But if a child commits a crime, suddenly we're off the hook? Makes no sense at all to me.

    But then I'm a bitter knitter who really bought the idea that it takes a village.


    I don't think you're from another planet, (none / 0) (#38)
    by Bemused on Thu May 07, 2009 at 07:02:16 AM EST
      just an earthling prone to using really inapt analogies.

      Recognizing that many (but not all) children who commit crimes have been conditioned by deficiencies in their upbringing, does not require either absolving them of responsibility for their conduct or transfering responsibility to to "society."

      In fact, I find the underlying thinking of your views perhaps more frightening and more, or at leat more broadly,  injurious of liberty and justice than the current juvenile justice system.

      I don't want to live in a place where "society" is granted control over children rather than families except in the most extreme instances of demonstrated need based upon things that HAVE OCCURRED. The "village" should be kept at bay if it's merely a matter of the "village elders" thinking some child might in the future do something bad because of his family environment.

      The world isn't and never will be a perfect place, but the idea of government intrusion into family life and granting it the power to control how and by whom children who have not offended or have not been not subjected to proven acts or omissions by their parents which hare clearly limited and defined in advance is a huge step toward authoritarian repression.


    This has been an issue with me for years (none / 0) (#39)
    by nellre on Thu May 07, 2009 at 07:48:11 PM EST
    Children are not adults and should not be treated as if they were. Crimes committed by children reflect on us as a society, and they should.

    I'm not talking about control, I'm talking about caring enough to have support systems that really work (like Head Start). Pay teachers more, smaller classrooms, effective assistance to parents that are in over their heads. Stop playground bullies. And most of all poverty... find and implement effective programs that will pull families out of poverty for good.


    OK. So when a 16-yr. old (none / 0) (#40)
    by brew on Fri May 08, 2009 at 08:48:03 AM EST
    who went to Head Start, had one-on-one interaction with a teacher who made 80K, wasn't bullied, and had a comfortable upbringing, ROBS AND KILLS YOU, what then?

    SITE VIOLATOR! (none / 0) (#42)
    by Zorba on Wed May 09, 2012 at 05:49:56 PM EST
    Turkish, again.  Defol!