Friday, June 29, 2012

Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

It depends on your views.  With immigration and the health care law, what the Supreme Court did this week in the land of juvenile justice is getting overlooked. 

In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for persons under eighteen violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  The Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for two fourteen year olds convicted of murder should not stand. 

It is a ban on states that have mandatory life without parole sentences, not on discretionary life without parole sentences where the court or jury considers the background of the juvenile and all other circumsances.

The Court divided 5 to 4 on this issue in deciding two cases similtaneously.  Evan Miller, the defendant, was fourteen when he and another boy beat and robbed a neighbor with a baseball bat and then burned the trailor to the ground with the victim inside.  In the second case, Arkansas native Kuntrell Jackson, fourteen, was convicted of murder when a store clerk was shot and killed during a robbery by one of his accomplices.

The Supreme Court took issue with legislatures mandating life without parole sentences in these cases.

This is an extension of the Court's decision in Graham v. Florida, in 2010.  In that case, a sixteen year old was sentenced to life without the possibiltiy of parole for an armed robbery.  The Court held unequivocally, that life without parole sentences are never valid for juveniles in non-homicde cases.   

The Supreme Court has taken a chunk out of juvenile sentencing in the last few years.  In Roper v. Simmons, in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is no longer available for juveniles convicted of murder.  It again ruled that this is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.  The Court stated that their opinions can reflect the standards of an evolving society on the issue of sentencing. 

The Supreme Court had taken up the juvenile death penalty previously.  In 1989, in Stanford v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for juvniles convicted of murder.  In those cases, the defendants were sixteen and seventeen. 

The Supreme Court admittedly analyzes sentencing based on the standards and decency of an evolving society.  None of these decisions will affect juvenile sentencing in New York State.  New York State does not have a death penalty anymore and juvenile offenders, even those convicted of murder, have a maximum sentence of fifteen years to life. 

Juvenile justice is a lightning rod issue.  Some of the juvenile crimes are the most heinous and violent.  We walk a fine line between an appropriate sentence and rehabilitation.  A bill is winding its way through the New York legislature right now that will overhaul the entire juvenile offender system. 

For better or worse is yet to be seen.  The other question is, why is eighteen the cut-off?  Or sixteen?  Or whereever someone will draw a line.  Some studies say the brain is still devloping through a person's twenty-fifth birthday.  Picking an arbitrary date leaves a lot of room for future debate. 

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