Tag Archives: juvenile justice

Supreme Court Decision Will Affect Thousands Serving Life Without Parole Sentences

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The incomparable Bryan Stevenson, arguing Miller v. Alabama. Credit: Art Lien, Supreme Court artist.

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to consider retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama, a crucially important case about justice for youth in America. Although the 2012 Miller decision made mandatory life without parole sentences for minors unconstitutional (in violation of the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment), the court has yet to rule on retroactively applying the decision.

Granting certoriari for this case (lawyer-speak for agreeing to hear it) is a huge step forward for the thousands of people who were given mandatory life without parole sentences as children, and who are incarcerated in states that have refused to retroactively apply the law. The plaintiff in the current case, Henry Montgomery, has been in prison since 1963, when he was seventeen years old. The law that imposed the mandatory life without parole sentence for Mr. Montgomery has been invalidated by the Miller decision, but Louisiana has thus far resisted reconsidering pre-2012 mandatory sentences.

Life without parole sentences for children are applied with frightening frequency. In 2013, roughly 2,500 people were serving life without parole sentences that they were given as minors. This is a population we don’t trust with drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or voting. Yet somehow we’re prepared to give up on them completely as a society? Here’s a gem from the Miller opinion, written by Justice Kagan:

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features–among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him–and from which he cannot usually extricate himself–no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the … extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores … his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.

Should this ruling in Miller be applied to those sentenced before 2012? From a moral standpoint, of course it should (none of Kagan’s points magically sprang into being in 2012). The legal argument will hinge on whether the new rule is substantive (those are retroactive) or procedural (those aren’t). Basically, Montgomery’s team is arguing that since Miller applies to the type of punishment that can be applied to a class of people, it’s substantive. Louisiana will argue that the change was procedural – in Louisiana specifically, the procedural change was a new hearing where minors can present evidence to reduce their sentence – and therefore should not be retroactive. The substantive nature of Miller strongly speaks to the substantive nature of Montgomery’s claim as well – how can a finding of cruel and unusual punishment be categorized as “procedural”?  

So – good for the Court for granting cert on the retroactivity issue. And shame on Louisiana (and Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) for requiring Supreme Court intervention. Best wishes to Mr. Montgomery and his team for another step toward thoughtful, humane criminal justice.

Photographs of young people sentenced to life without parole (all taken within a year of conviction). Courtesy of Human Rights Watch, available here: http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/10/02/state-distribution-juvenile-offenders-serving-juvenile-life-without-parole

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Social work and the future of juvenile justice

The vast majority of young people who end up involved with the criminal justice system come from marginalized communities. They very frequently have parents who are absent from their lives because they’re forced to work long hours at multiple jobs, struggling with mental health problems, addicted to drugs or alcohol, incarcerated, or for other reasons. Many violent youth offenders are victims of physical and sexual abuse, while property crimes and involvement with illegal economies (drug dealing, in particular) are often the result of trying to improve a low standard of living for themselves and their families.

A recent study published in Social Work, a journal for the National Association of Social Workers, recognizes the importance of the structural factors that underpin much of the crime committed by youth in the U.S. In “Social Work and Juvenile Probation: Historical Tensions and Contemporary Convergences,” Clark Peters traces the gradual divergence between probation offices and social workers over the last hundred years.

“The correctional system affects individuals and communities at the heart of social work’s efforts: people who are poor and people of color,” Clark writes. “Yet social work has an almost negligible presence in the key roles of this domain.”

Why the separation? Clark presents several explanations, but foremost among them is the transition from the juvenile justice system’s original purported goal of intervention and support for youth offenders to its current emphasis on individual failure. As Clark explains, “The court’s focus on personal culpability did not allow offenders to externalize blame.” In short, each offense is viewed as an insular occurrence and the result of the child’s bad judgment and even their bad character. Sound familiar?

That pretty much sums up the recent history of juvenile justice in the U.S., but is it possible that we’re at the brink of some kind of turning point? Beyond simply using the skill set and perspective of a social worker to help individual kids, Clark concludes with the suggestion that social workers might have a broader impact on the criminal justice system as a whole. He writes that some commentators today “[call for] a role for social workers in reforming a punitive system that is hostile to the communities that social workers purport to serve.”

“Commentators in this vein argue that social workers should advocate for ‘fundamental change’ in the corrections system, and that failure to do so is an implicit endorsement of the nation’s correctional policies and tantamount to ‘professional incompetence.'”

So – exciting new horizon for the role of social workers in juvenile justice? Or the opinions of a few lone rangers whose views will never be reflected in reality?

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