Category Archives: Juvenile Justice

Juvenile Justice Continues to Mature

In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roper v. Simmons that the 8th Amendment (barring “cruel and unusual punishment”) meant that juvenile juvenile offenders could not be executed for their crimes. And in Graham v. Florida (2102), the Court extended this ruling to forbid LWOP (“life without possibility of parole”) sentences for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicides.

Lurking behind these rulings is a sense that juvenile offenders may not be fully aware of the seriousness of their crimes, no matter how heinous they may be. Moreover, in a country that prides itself on second chances and the possibility of redemption, incarcerating people forever for a crime they committed when they weren’t old enough to vote seems unduly harsh and unforgiving as well as incredibly expensive.

In the 2012 case of People v. Caballero, the California Supreme Court extended the reasoning of Graham to a case in which a juvenile convicted of attempted murder was ineligible for parole until he had served 110 years. The California court decided that a minimum sentence of 110 years is the functional equivalent of a mandatory life sentence. The ruling allows prisoners to file writs of habeas corpus in trial courts, asking judges to consider their suitability for parole based on their “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

California Governor Jerry Brown extended this trend when he signed new legislation allowing for the possibility of parole to juveniles who had been convicted of murder and given no-parole sentences. Under the new law, which takes effect in 2013, offenders must serve a minimum of 15 years in prison and their record while in prison must demonstrate remorse and steps towards rehabilitation. (The new law does not apply to those offenders who tortured their victims or killed a police officer.)

None of these changes constitutes an automatic ticket to freedom. But they do offer hope to juvenile offenders, and motivation to work on themselves while they are in prison.

A Lifeline for Youthful Murderers

A few years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that under the 8th Amendment (forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment”), juvenile offenders (people who were minors when they committed the crime subjecting them to the death penalty) could not be executed.

In the June 2012 cases of Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the Court by a 5-4 vote extended the rule by holding that the 8th Amendment is also violated if juvenile offenders are automatically given an LWOP sentence (life without possibility of parole) under statutes that provide for “automatic LWOP.” The ruling allows “individualized” LWOP sentencing of juveniles based on the circumstances of individual cases, so juveniles may receive LWOP sentences in the future.

Murders committed by juveniles are often as horrific as those committed by adults, and their age in no way lessens the effects of their crimes on victims’ family members and friends. Nevertheless, automatic LWOP sentences for juveniles seems unfair. As the majority argued, juveniles have less impulse control than adults, and they have had less time than adults to escape the impact of factors that are often assiciated with violent crimes, such as poverty and and child abuse.

Even the worst juvenile offenders have the capacity to lift the human spirit and offer hope if, perhaps over the course of a few decades of imprisonment, they are able to change their lives so positively that they are fit to live decent and productive lives. The limited lifeline that the Supreme Court offered in these two cases is a worthy step in the right direction.

The Young and the Arrested

By age 23, almost one-third of all people in the U.S. will have been arrested for a crime other than a minor traffic offense, so say the findings of a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

These numbers show a marked increase from a similar study conducted 44 years ago, which found that 22 percent of people had been arrested by age 23.

While the new number (30.2 percent, to be exact)  may seem surprisingly high, keep in mind that it applies only to arrests — not to convictions, and not even to the filing of formal criminal charges. (Learn more about Criminal Charges and How Cases Get Started.) And while there are surely more than a few hardened criminals under the age of 23, the data includes arrests for comparatively minor offenses such as truancy, vandalism, and underage drinking.    

So why are heavy silver bracelets all the rage these days? Some experts are attributing the rise in arrests among young people to factors like the increased prevalence of drug offenses and domestic violence offenses — which were not committed, reported, or acted upon by law enforcement with nearly as much frequency four decades ago (more in this Chicago Sun-Times article). The New York Times points out that this rise in arrests for young adults comes at a time when it’s easier than ever for potential employers to check on criminal histories, so young job applicants may be in for an “arrested development” when it comes to their careers.