Juvenile Justice

  • June 25, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Supreme Court provided a mixed response to Arizona’s harsh immigration law, which also included an odd take on state sovereignty by Justice Antonin Scalia in his concurring, dissenting opinion. The Court’s right-wing bloc also overturned Montana Supreme Court’s decision supporting common sense campaign finance regulation.

    So the high court’s most progressive action likely came in its 5-4 opinion, Miller v. Alabama. That opinion held that mandatory life sentences without parole of juveniles violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

    Citing precedent set forth in the cases Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, reiterated that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained ‘they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.’”

    Children, Kagan, continued have different maturity levels than adults, they are more vulnerable to all kinds of pressures, and finally the child’s character is just not developed yet. Kagan noted the Court’s precedents “rested not only on common sense – on what ‘any parent knows’ – but on science and social science as well.”

  • June 8, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Joel Rogers, who teaches law, political science, sociology and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also directs COWS, a high road think-and-do tank. He’ll be leading a breakout session on “ALICE” at the ACS National Convention next week.


    ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), for nearly 40 years the best kept open secret of the American Right, has certainly been in the news lately, with reporting from Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and many others. ALEC’s authorship of much of the GOP legislative playbook last year -- to obliterate public sector unions, restrict voting by students and the poor, roll back environmental and consumer protections, and privatize much of government -- spurred press attention. As the Times remarked afterward, “it is no coincidence that so many state legislatures have spent the last year taking the same destructive actions.” So did, more recently, ALEC’s promotion of the ”stand-your-ground” law made famous by Trayvon Martin’s killing. Special credit for increasing public knowledge of ALEC’s antics should go to ALEC Exposed, which last year published several hundred of ALEC’s model bills, helped organize a special issue of The Nation devoted to them, and has kept up a drumbeat of ALEC-watchdogging ever since. Worried about the publicity, a growing number of household name corporations, most recently Walmart, have ended their membership in the group.

    This new awareness and scrutiny of ALEC is all to the good. But even better would be a progressive counter to its influence. What that would really require is probably beyond anyone’s immediate means, as it would mean matching the vast political infrastructure the Right has built in states over the last 40 years. Along with ALEC’s conferences and library of model bills, this includes broad and deep networks for mass and internal communication, staff and leadership development, candidate recruitment and training, enough recognized leadership to permit assessments of progress and strategy discussion, and a dedicated pool of patient capital for all these things. National progressive donors and institutions have never shown commitment to matching this machine, much less the coordination that such matching would require.

  • April 24, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    From time to time, perhaps once a decade, syndicated columnist George Will can say or write something that does more than trumpet right-wing talking points. A recent piece on the Supreme Court’s consideration of whether sentencing juveniles to prison with no chance of parole violates the Constitution is an example.

    Writing about cases involving juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed when they were 14, Will says the judges involved had “no discretion to impose any other” sentences, and that such mandatory sentencing bars courts from taking into consideration our “society’s sense of cruelty.” This kind of thinking, however, as Will notes can undercut so-called originalism, a method of interpreting the Constitution favored by conservative judges. Toward the end of his column, Will writes that “even the ‘originalist’ Scalia, although disposed to construe the Constitution’s terms as they were understood when ratified, would today proscribe some late-18th-century punishments, such as public lashing and branding.”

    Instead of obsessively trying to figure out what the Constitution’s framers thought when they crafted the document, competent judges today consider societal developments, which are informed by science. In fact, Will writes that the high court “has accommodated what science teaches.” He cites high court opinions from 2005 and 2010 that took into account studies on the differences between youngsters and adults in limiting the use of the death penalty in cases involving juveniles.

    In 2005’s Roper v. Simmons, the justices relied in part on the differences between children and adults in concluding that the death penalty would not be imposed for crimes committed by those under 18, and later in Graham v. Florida that life sentences without parole would not be dealt to juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.

    Will argues that the social science should be relied on by the high court in finding that teenagers committed of violent crimes, including homicide, should not be imprisoned forever. “Denying juveniles even a chance for parole defeats the penal objective of rehabilitation,” Will writes.

    In a March 13 guest post for ACSblog law professor Kristin Henning also notes that scientific research “on adolescent development bolsters the commonsense understanding that teenagers lack self-control, are vulnerable to environmental pressures, and have fewer life experiences on which to draw in evaluating the consequences of their actions.”

  • March 13, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Kristin Henning, Sidley Austin-Robert D. McLean Visiting Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Professor of Law at Georgetown Law


    Seven years ago, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized fundamental differences between children and adults that bear directly on the issue of culpability to outlaw imposition of the death penalty for any crime committed by a defendant younger than 18. Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, it relied on the same principles to ban life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

    Next week, the Supreme Court will consider whether those principles must once again render a life-without-parole sentence unconstitutional for youth convicted of homicide offenses when it hears the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were both sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed when they were 14.  Because there is no scientific, legal or practical reason to disregard the findings in Roper and Graham, the established constitutional law must prevail and life-without-parole sentences for all teenagers, including Jackson and Miller, must be prohibited as excessive.

    Life imprisonment without parole, which discounts any possibility for rehabilitation, is a severe sentence for any offender. For a teenager, it is an extraordinary punishment in both length and psychological severity. And yet sentencing laws in many states make it possible for children to be locked away forever without any opportunity for release. 

    In most areas of the law, minors are treated with special solicitude and graduated responsibility. State laws prevent youths under 18 from voting, serving on juries or in the military, drinking alcohol, or marrying without parental consent. These protections are in place because teenagers are biologically and psychologically different than adults. Scientific research on adolescent development bolsters the commonsense understanding that teenagers lack self-control, are vulnerable to environmental pressures, and have fewer life experiences on which to draw in evaluating the consequences of their actions. 

  • January 18, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program


    The fact that Martin Luther King seems like an increasingly distant historical figure is only partly explained by the relentless passing of time. The rest can be explained by the limited way in which his life and work is often described. King is most frequently linked with his protests against segregated buses and lunch counters and other examples of apartheid that seem far removed from the present era, a time when an African American occupies the nation’s highest office.

    Any complacency about society’s success in addressing the most obvious forms of discrimination is unwarranted. In fact, significant parts of King’s dream remain unrealized and seldom commented upon. Throughout his struggle, King emphasized economic inequalities in American society. In his “I Have a Dream Speech” he railed about the fact that, a hundred years after emancipation, African Americans still lived “on a lonely island of poverty.” He complained that the passage of a century did not change the fact African Americans “still languished in the corners of American Society.” On the day he died, he was protesting the mistreatment of Memphis sanitation workers, a mistreatment that was in part economic.

    What would the Martin Luther King who was concerned with economic justice make of the fact that, in a period of general economic crisis, African Americans are hit twice as hard, enduring an unemployment rate twice that of the nation as a whole?