Monday, 23 May 2011

Recent Court Cases on Extreme Sentences for Youth

by Advocates Forabandonedadolescents
California Court of Appeal holds 84-to-life sentence unconstitutional in the case of a juvenile who caused no injury
A California Court of Appeal found a life with the possibility of parole sentence unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment for a 16-year-old.  Victor Mendez did not commit a homicide or inflict bodily injury but was sentenced to 84-years- to-life in prison, a sentence that meant he would have no real opportunity for release. Relying on the recent US Supreme Court Case, Graham v. Florida, the California court found that the lengthy sentence did not give him  “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  Read the full opinion:  People vs. Mendez.

US Supreme Court holds life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes
In a decision authored by Justice Kennedy, the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not permit the imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for youth under the age of 18 in cases involving a non-homicide crime.  Terrance Graham, the petitioner in the case, was 17 years old when he pleaded guilty to armed burglary with assault or battery and attempted armed-robbery.  When his trial court judge later found that Graham violated his probation by committing a home invasion robbery and other related offenses, it sentenced him to life without parole.
 In finding the sentence unconstitutional, the Court relied on the reasoning in its previous decision in Roper v. Simmons, which banned the death penalty for juveniles, finding that psychological and scientific developments continue to support the notion that “because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”  Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, 560 U.S. ____ at *17 (slip op., May 17, 2010) (quoting Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 569 (2005)).  It also noted that life without the possibility of parole is “an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile,” and that “penological” goals of deterrence and retribution were not adequate to justify the sentence for youth in non-homicide offenses.  Additionally, the Court found that the rarity in the application of the sentence to juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses demonstrated that a national consensus had developed against it, and also recognized that “the global consensus against” this sentence supported the Court’s conclusion that the sentence is cruel and unusual.  Graham at * 16.  
The majority also rejected alternative “case-by-case” approaches to addressing the unconstitutionality of the sentence for youth in non-homicide cases, in favor of a “categorical rule” requiring that all youth who did not commit a homicide be afforded a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  Id. at *24.  Justice Stevens wrote a separate concurrence criticizing the dissent’s “rigid interpretation” of the cruel and usual punishments clause of the Eight Amendment and noting that the Court today “wisely rejects [Justice Thomas’] static approach to the law.”  Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412 at *2 (Stevens, J., concurring).
The Court’s decision affirms its commitment to the principles established and recognized in Roper and particularly, its belief that youth are different from adults in fundamental ways and have a great capacity for rehabilitation and change, such that “it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult.” Id., quoting Roper, 543 U.S. at 570.  As the Court put it, “[a] life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity.”  Id. at 22.  Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Breyer joined in the majority opinion. Justice Roberts concurred in the judgment and Justices Alito, Thomas and Scalia dissented.
In California, there are approximately four people sentenced to juvenile life without parole  for non-homicide cases. The total number of   juvenile life without parole cases in California is approximately 273.
Read the full opinion: Graham v. Florida
Briefs in Support of the Graham case
Many organizations and individuals submitted “friend of the court” (amicus) briefs to the Supreme Court  in support of the two youth who were sentenced to LWOP.  Law enforcement, victim family members, religious groups,  scientists, educators, disability rights activists, and groups like the the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Human Rights Watch, Mental Health America, National Association of Social Workers, and many others all signed on to briefs arguing that the court should find in favor of the young people in these cases.  You can read these briefs here.

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