Supreme Court

How 2 SCOTUS LWOP Cases May Affect California


The Daily Journal’s Supreme Court reporter,
Lawrence Hurley, has written a very good, very clear and very informative story about the California implications of the two upcoming SCOTUS cases as the court considers the issue of life sentences for juveniles who have not committed homicides.

The Daily Journal is behind a pay wall, but Hurley has kindly allowed me to make the text available to you here.

By the way, it turns out that California isn’t even close to the worst in terms of these juvenile LWOP cases. Florida is far worse. Out of the 109 juveniles nationwide serving life without parole for non-homicides, 77 are in Florida.

WASHINGTON – The future of four prison inmates in California could hang in the balance when the U.S. Supreme Court debates next month whether juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses.

Four convicted felons in the state received such sentences. Life without parole for crimes not involving murder is not a common punishment for juveniles in California – not to mention the nation as a whole – but on Nov. 9 the Supreme Court will take up the issue when the justices hear arguments in two cases out of Florida.

Lawyers for the two Florida juveniles appealing their sentences say that life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The cases have attracted considerable attention from legal groups, with experts predicting it could be the start of a concerted attack on the entire concept of life without parole. Some liberal activists and scholars view life without parole in a similar light as the death penalty.

California is one of eight states that have sentenced juveniles to life without parole for certain non-capital crimes.

The four males currently serving such sentences were convicted between 1993 and 2003, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data that was made available to the Public Interest Law Center at Florida State University. They were aged 16 or 17 when they committed the crimes. The prison service’s data does not detail the nature of their offenses, but they are all thought to be kidnapping-related, a corrections department spokesman said. The state will not release the names of the four inmates.

When murder offenses are included, there are 263 inmates in California prisons serving life without parole for offenses committed when they were juveniles. They make up a small number of the roughly 170,000 inmates in California’s state prisons.

A recent report compiled by the Florida State researchers, based on data provided by 47 out of 50 states, including California, concluded that there are 109 juveniles nationwide serving life without parole for non-homicides. Of those, 77 are in Florida.

The Supreme Court will examine the convictions of Terrance Graham, who was 16 when convicted of armed burglary and a year older when he violated his probation; and Joe Sullivan, who was 13 when convicted of sexual battery. Graham v. Florida, 08-7412, and Sullivan v. Florida, 08-7621.

The two cases come to the Supreme Court just four years after the justices banned the death penalty for juveniles on a close 5-4 vote. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551.

That case also rested on the 8th Amendment. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that juveniles are less culpable than adults who commit the same offenses. Lawyers for the Florida inmates are hoping the court will reach a similar conclusion over life without parole.

Law-and-order conservatives, however, are worried that the cases could open the door to a wider challenge against all sentences of life without parole.

As Kent S. Scheidegger, an attorney at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, noted, “the ink was barely dry on Roper” before lawyers started making the argument that life without parole for juveniles was also unconstitutional.

His main concern is that even a narrow Supreme Court decision to restrict life without parole for juveniles in certain circumstances could help civil rights groups in future cases.

“We are more worried about a ‘small step’ effect,” Scheidegger said.

Activists who have been leading an unsuccessful fight – at least so far – to reform California’s sentencing laws are now hoping the Supreme Court will do the job for them.

Legislation that would allow an individual sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile to seek re-sentencing after serving at least 10 years in prison has so far failed to pass the California Assembly.

Elizabeth Calvin, a Santa Monica-based senior advocate at Human Rights Watch, said it was gratifying that the Supreme Court had at least “recognized this is such a serious issue” by agreeing to hear the cases.

The publicity generated by the Florida cases is also helpful to her group’s cause, she said, because it’s contributed to “a growing awareness that the U.S. is the only country that uses this sentence.”

Florida State researcher Paolo G. Annino, who compiled the national report, says the fact that Florida is so out of step with the rest of the country in terms of how often life-without-parole sentences are imposed on juveniles is hard to ignore.

“What the numbers show is that it’s an unusual outcome in this country, and Florida is a clear outlier,” he added.

How the Supreme Court rules seems largely in the hands, once again, of Justice Kennedy, who is often the swing vote on the ideologically divided court.

The fact that the court chose not to consolidate the two cases also indicates that the justices could reach differing conclusions in each, according to Pamela Harris, executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown Law Center.

She thinks both are tough cases to call, in part because there was no indication at the time Roper was decided that the liberal justices anticipated it would be the basis for subsequent challenges to life without parole.

“They thought they drew a line in Roper,” she said. “If they extend that beyond Roper, what’s the next bright line?”

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