Juvenile Justice

  • June 17, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. You can follow updates related to Garrett’s book, “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” at the book’s Facebook page here.


    The Court’s decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina provides the latest window into the troubled world of juvenile interrogations. The Court ruled that police questioning of a thirteen-year-old boy about residential robberies, without giving the famous Miranda warnings or allowing him to call his grandmother, may have rendered his confession inadmissible. If he in fact should reasonably have felt “free to leave” then the questioning was not custodial, and the Miranda warnings need not have been given. However, the Court said that the trial judge should have examined whether his age was a factor when deciding whether he should have actually felt free to leave. He was in a classroom with the door closed and school officials present, not in an interrogation room in a police station.

    But the Court described how a thirteen-year-old might very well not feel free to leave under the circumstances. The thirteen-year-old confessed in thirty to forty-five minutes. He was told he could not call his grandmother, his legal guardian, and that he would end up in juvenile detention. The Court called it a “commonsense reality” that juveniles should be treated differently because, as the Court has recognized in many other opinions dealing with punishment of juveniles, they are more “vulnerable” and “susceptible to outside pressures than adults.” 

    Not only are juvenile interrogations under-regulated, in a juvenile justice system that makes a fetish of confession, but false confessions are a deep concern.

  • June 2, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Anthony F. Renzo, Professor of Law, Vermont Law School. Professor Renzo specializes in constitutional law and litigation.
    Wielding the Eighth Amendment as a sword, the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida outlawed as "cruel and unusual" punishment the imposition of life without parole sentences for all persons convicted of non-homicide offenses when they were juveniles (17 and younger). The Court held that life sentences for juveniles who do not kill violate the Eighth Amendment unless such juveniles have "some meaningful opportunity" to seek release by demonstrating rehabilitation and reform.

    Terrance Jamar Ghaham was 17 years old at the time he violated his probation on an armed burglary offense. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial judge who concluded that Graham was incorrigible despite recommendations of limited term sentences by the Department of Corrections and the State prosecutor. Since Florida had abolished its parole system for all crimes, the life sentence left Graham with no opportunity for release for the rest of his life barring executive clemency. Graham's Eighth Amendment challenge to his sentence was rejected on appeal to the Florida District Court of Appeal, which concluded that Graham was "incapable of rehabilitation." In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court reversed, finding such sentences so disproportionate and rare that they could not bear the weight of the Eighth Amendment.

    That the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments extends to prison sentences has been treated as settled law for 100 years until the appointment of the current crop of arch-conservatives to the Court, led by Scalia and Thomas, who, joined by Justice Alito, dissented in Graham. Their view is that the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment was limited to outrageous methods of punishment such as torture and did not extend to the proportionality of prison sentences, which, according to their theory, was left to the limitless discretion of State and federal legislative bodies. The majority in Graham takes a quite different approach. In a complete rejection of the dissenters' rigid and narrow reading of "cruel and unusual punishments," the Court reaffirms once again that "courts must look beyond historical conceptions to ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'" Inherent in this process is an inquiry into "proportionality," which is "central to the Eighth Amendment."

  • May 26, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Jody Kent and Beth Colgan. Kent is director and national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Colgan is the managing attorney of the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services. Kent and Colgan are authors of an Issue Brief recently published by ACS called "A Just Alternative to Sentencing Youth to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole."
    The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Graham v. Florida, has conclusively established that for the purposes of the Eighth Amendment, youth are different-and therefore are afforded greater protections-than adults. In establishing a categorical ban on sentencing youth who have committed non-homicide offenses to life in prison without the possibility of parole (whether the constitution prohibits the sentence in homicide cases was not in front of the Court), the Court relied on longstanding precedent related to the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, which "underscore the essential principle that, under the Eighth Amendment, the State must respect the human attributes even of those who have committed serious crimes." (7)

    The human attributes at issue in Graham, were the unique characteristics of youth. As in its 2005 opinion in Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the imposition of the death penalty against minors, the Court looked to psychosocial and scientific research that show "fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds" linked to decision making, moral reasoning, and culpability. (17) As Amici including the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explained in detail, as a result of anatomical differences between juvenile and adult brains and differing degrees of psychosocial development, youth do not have adult levels of judgment, impulse control, or the ability to assess risks. These same differences mean that youth are more amenable than adults to positive character development and rehabilitation.

    That those unique qualities of youth make it impossible for a judge to know at sentencing whether a youth is truly incorrigible, or whether he or she may someday be rehabilitated and redeemed, resonated throughout the Court's opinion. (22) That principle led the majority to conclude that a categorical ban on the sentence was required. While Chief Justice John Roberts joined the majority in concluding that youth must be afforded greater protections under the Eighth Amendment than adults, in his concurring opinion, he argued that a case-by-case proportionality analysis where age is considered at sentencing was a sufficient remedy. In the majority opinion, however, Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected such an approach, writing that the courts could not "with sufficient accuracy distinguish the few incorrigible juvenile offenders from the many that have the capacity for change." (27)

  • May 20, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Stephen K. Harper and Randy A. Hertz. Harper is an Adjunct Professor of Juvenile Justice, University of Miami School of Law, and Hertz is the Director of Clinical and Advocacy Programs and Professor of Clinical Law, NYU School of Law.
    In Graham v Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed what it found in Roper v Simmons: kids are different. In Roper, children and adolescents were found to be so different from adults that, as a class, they should not be eligible for death. Graham found that these differences now apply in non-homicide cases where juveniles were sentenced to life without any possibility of parole. In Roper, the Court recognized what we know instinctively -- and what science continues to teach us -- that "juveniles have a ‘lack of maturity and an undeveloped sense of responsibility'; they are ‘more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure' and their characteristics are ‘not as well formed.'"

    The Court found that life without any possibility of parole is a sentence that simply means there is no chance for the young offender to later "demonstrate growth and maturity." It is that maturity that "can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal and rehabilitation." An adolescent sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole stands for the proposition that some children are completely finished before they are even completed.

    Juveniles are less culpable precisely because they don't have the same mature judgment, sense of consequence and sense of self as does an adult. They are developmentally immature in areas of impulse control, sensation-seeking, future orientation, and susceptibility to peer pressure and other external influences. They are also more changeable and malleable than adults. Indeed as stated in the amicus brief (in support of Graham) by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, juveniles "unformed identity makes it less likely that their offenses evince a fixed bad character and more likely that they will reform." And, as was further pointed out by the amicus brief of American Medical Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "the structural and functional immaturities of the adolescent brain provide (even) a biological basis for the behavioral immaturities." (Emphasis added)

  • May 17, 2010

    The Supreme Court ruled in two closely watched cases involving sentencing of juveniles and the ability of federal officials to indefinitely imprison "sexually dangerous" inmates.

    In Graham v. Florida, the Court's majority held that it is unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders, who have not killed anyone, to life in prison with no chance of parole. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded that Florida officials had violated the Eighth Amendment rights of Terrance Graham when they sentenced him for robberies he committed as a juvenile to a life sentence with no chance of parole. Kennedy wrote, "The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment does not permit." Justices Antonin Scalia, Thomas and Alito filed a dissenting opinion. In analysis for SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston writes that the decision "produced an outpouring of writing from the Court, including a fervent complaint by three dissenters that the majority was simply using raw power to rule by ‘judicial fiat,' but the ruling's practical effect on juvenile offenders was far from clear. In declaring that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment is violated by a life-without parole sentence for a juvenile whose crime did not involve murder, the Court did make a new constitutional declaration. That is a flat, or categorical, rule, and thus it lays down the juvenile sentencing rule from here on - but for new sentencing proceedings only, it appears."

    The Sentencing Project lauded the high court's decision in Graham, saying, "There needs to be consequences for youth who commit serious crimes, but these need to be age-appropriate measures that do not preclude the possibility of change."

    In U.S. v. Comstock, the high court ruled that federal officials can indefinitely detain some prisoners considered "sexually dangerous" after they have completed their criminal sentences. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded that Congress did not exceed its constitutional authority with passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which authorizes the federal government to continue to detain prisoners who were convicted of sexually violent crimes and suffered from mental illness. Breyer wrote that the "Constitution grants Congress legislative power sufficient to enact" the law, The Associated Press reported.