Supreme Court Rules on Juvenile LWOP, Federal Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders
The Supreme Court issued two rulings today in cases whose facts implicate big-picture questions about crime and punishment, although the precise legal questions at issue in both — and therefore the import of these opinions — are narrower than those big-picture questions. In Graham v. Florida, a divided court held that a life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for a juvenile convicted of burglary violates the Eighth Amendment. In United States v. Comstock, the court held 7-2 (with Scalia and Thomas dissenting) that the federal government’s civil commitment program for “sexually dangerous” offenders does not exceed Congress’s constitutional authority. You can access links to the opinions and related documents at How Appealing, legal analysis at SCOTUSblog, and an interesting perspective on how PR concerns may have driven the Court’s treatment of these cases over at Sentencing Law & Policy (where you can also find lots more commentary from Doug Berman on these opinions, including several posts on Graham).
Note that, as Lyle Denniston observes at SCOTUSblog, Graham does not require or even necessarily contemplate the actual release of juvenile LWOP prisoners. Rather, Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court holds merely that these prisoners must be afforded “some meaningful opportunity” to present a case that they have matured and are fit to re-enter society. However, Justice Kennedy was quick to make clear, “[t]hose who commit truly horrifying crimes as juveniles may turn out to be irredeemable, and thus deserving of incarceration for the duration of their lives.” There is a lot going on in this sentence alone — a lot of assumptions and value judgments — that merits further unpacking.
I’d also note that insofar as juveniles have now won a right to a parole hearing, we might question how meaningful of a right that really is (notwithstanding the “some meaningful opportunity” language) given that in many states, parole hearings have become a sort of charade in which the prisoner can never actually win release, because the parole board routinely denies parole eligbility based solely upon the facts of the underlying crime, which is the one thing that the prisoner, of course, can never change. I am not too familiar with how parole works in Florida, which is home to most of the country’s juvenile LWOP prisoners, but I’ve blogged previously about challenges to rubber-stamp parole boards in Virginia and Michigan. After I’ve had a chance to read the opinions more closely, I’ll blog again about any notable prison implications I see, but for now, hopefully the above links and impressions will get readers started in learning and thinking about these opinions.