U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Juvenile Lifer Cases from Florida
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two consolidated cases from Florida involving life sentences for juvenile offenders: Graham v Florida and Sullivan v Florida. What makes these cases interesting, and thus important, is that the victims in the cases were not killed, yet the offenders received life sentences without parole. A published decision will follow soon.
Here in Michigan, pursuant to a network of statutes, a juvenile may be tried as an adult. Michigan also has a variety of offenses which call for life sentences. There are no juvenile offenders, however, serving life sentences for non-leathal offenses in Michigan.
The question before the Supreme Court this week was whether a life sentence should be flat-out banned for non-lethal juvenile offenders. Chief Justice Roberts seemed to be lobbying his fellow-justices to provide the juvenile offender the opportunity to emphasize his "youth" under an 8th Amendment "cruel and unusual punishment" analysis. Roberts' approach was an alternative to the outright ban sought by the attorneys for the youths. He seemed to favor a "proportionality" analysis.
Full analysis of Justice Roberts' approach to the argument in this case is found on the SCOTUS blog.
There are about 100 such youth sitting in prisons on life sentences for non-lethal convictions; most of them in Florida, which has approximately three quarters. A recent NYT article suggests that tourism in the state may have been a factor in so many harsh sentences handed down to youths committing serious crimes in Florida.
Professional court watchers sensed sympathy for the youthful convicts from some of the Justices. A few seemed to favor a constitutional prohibition of such sentences. The rationale for the ban is cruel and unusual punishment. A secondary argument is that such youthful offenders could benefit from habilitation.
Other (more conservative) Justices seemed less sympathetic, wondering where the age line should be drawn.
Without a clear majority on this issue, our prediction is that the court will decide the case down ideological lines, resulting in a plurality decision (i.e. no clear majority in the opinion, with several justices writing separately from their colleagues).
The case also calls into question the age-old tension between states' rights to define their own criminal laws in accord with local mores and sentiments, and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of all citizens, regardless of the criminal code of the state in which they are convicted.
We will await the high court's decision and keep you posted on the result along with some of the other cases we are following. In the meantime, if a juvenile member of your family has been accused of a serious crime, contact our firm to discuss your options.