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Thursday, June 28, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Quotes Banning Mandatory Life Sentences for Youth

Excerpts from the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court banning mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles in the case of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. __ (2012):

"The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment 'guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.' Roper, 543 U.S., at 560. That right, we have explained, 'flows from the basic 'precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned' to both the offender and the offense. Ibid. (quoting Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367 (1910))."


"Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained, 'they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.' Graham, 560 U.S., at __ (slip op., at 17)."


"Our decisions rested not only on common sense -- on what 'any parent knows' -- but on science and social science as well. Id., at 569. In Roper, we cited studies showing that "'[o]nly a relatively small proportion of adolescents'" who engage in illegal activity "'develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.'" Id., at 570 (quoting Steinberg & Scott, "Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty," 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1014 (2003)). And in Graham, we noted that 'developments psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds'--for example, in 'parts of the brain involved in behavior control.' 560 U.S., at __ (slip op., at 17). We reasoned that those findings--of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences--both lessened a child's 'moral culpability' and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his "'deficiencies will be reformed.'" Id., at __ (slip op., at 18) (quoting Roper, 543 U.S., at 570).


"Deciding that a 'juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society' would require 'mak[ing] a judgment that [he] is incorrigible'--but "'incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.'" 560 U.S., at __ (slip op, at 22) (quoting Workman v. Commonwealth, 429 S.W.2d 374, 378 (Ky. App 1968)). And for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence. Life without parole 'forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.' Graham, 560 U.S., at __ (slip op., at 23). It reflects 'an irrevocable judgment about [an offender's] value and place in society,' at odds with a child's capacity for change. Ibid.


"'[J]ust as the chronological age of a minor is itself a relevant mitigating factor of great weight, so must the background and mental and emotional development of a youthful defendant be duly considered'" in assessing his culpability. Id., at 116.


"Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender's age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it."


"And still worse each juvenile ... will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses--but really, as Graham noted, a greater sentence than those adults will serve."


"('A State is not required to to guarantee eventual freedom,' but must provide 'some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation'). By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment."


"[G]iven all we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children's diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty we noted in Roper and Graham of distinguishing at this early age between 'the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." Roper, 543 U.S., at 573; Graham, 560 U.S., at __ (slip op., at 17)."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nation’s High Court Ends Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences for Youth

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion abolishing mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for the 2,500 prisoners across the U.S. who were condemned to die in prison for crimes they were convicted of as juveniles.

Courts will now have discretion to impose a lesser sentence in those cases and consider age as a factor in sentencing. Juveniles can receive LWOP sentences, however, it is a discretionary sentence now, not a mandatory sentence in cases involving homicide. Prisoners already serving LWOP sentences for crimes they were convicted of as juveniles are now eligible for resentencing. How that process occurs will vary by state.

The court conveyed what any parent, educator and common sense can tell us: children are different than adults. They possess the unique capacity for change and growth because they are still cognitively developing, and should be provided a path for rehabilitation during their incarceration.

Children are not incorrigible or expendable, nor are they miniature adults. They are not transformed into adults because they make mistakes or bad choices no more than they are transformed into adults for positive achievements or making good decisions.

It is undisputed that young people must be held accountable for their actions. This accountability, however, can only be achieved in ways that reflect the young person's age and his/her capacity for change. Just as the punishment should fit the crime, the punishment should also fit the offender.

In Michigan, 73% of the prisoners serving LWOP sentences for crimes they were convicted of committing when they were juveniles are people of color, yet they comprise only 27% of the youth in the state.

Nearly half of those convicted are also first-time offenders. Most grew up in impoverished areas, were victims of abuse, and were regularly exposed to drugs and violence.

The International Journal of Forensic Mental Health reports that 2/3 of males and 3/4 of females in the juvenile justice system show signs of one or more psychiatric disorders.

Taken together these findings reflect a very vulnerable demographic of 200,000 to 250,000 juveniles annually transferred to adult courts that are disparately being subjected to the harshest sentences meted out by judges.

Sadly, the vast majority of these juveniles are incapable of defending themselves against the political gamesmanship and cascade of abuses and mistreatment they are subjected to by older, experienced professionals in the criminal justice system.

It is a moral imperative that we now amplify the national conversation about the draconian policy of sentencing juveniles in adult courts. Rather than abandon and demonize young people, citizens should urge legislators to reform sentencing guidelines and work to ensure fairness in the parole process.

Life sentences in any form are veritable death sentences in Michigan. As long as they remain sentencing options for juveniles their opportunity for serious parole consideration will remain an unattainable reality.

To read the US Supreme Court Decision in its entirety click on:

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner sentenced to LWOP as a juvenile in 1989. Learn more about Efren at