Monday, May 4, 2009

Good news? I hope

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the tragedy of kids as young as 13 and 14 being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Today, the United States Supreme Court agreed to take the cases of two men who were under 18 when they were sentenced to life without parole. One, Joe Sullivan, was 13 when he was sentenced to LWOP for rape. He is now confined to a wheelchair as a result of multiple sclerosis. The other, Terrance Graham, was 17 when he took part in a violent home invasion.

I will be waiting for this oral argument with much interest. In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional for anyone under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, citing the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In Kansas, LWOP is not an available punishment for any juvenile, even one convicted of capital murder. I think all states should follow that same path. If a majority of the court thinks death is too harsh for juveniles, it's reasonable to think they might extend the same logic to LWOP. But the Supremes don't always (often) go the route I think they should.

I can guess how 4 of the votes on the high court are likely to go. Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito generally aren't friendly to any 8th Amendment claims, so I have no reason to think they'll like this one much, either. I would expect Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, on the other hand, to be much more sympathetic to the defendants here. Kennedy is often the key vote on a case like this. And now, of course, we have the added mystery of not even knowing who the 9th justice will be.

Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

When will we learn. First, I DO NOT support the death penalty, However, there are some individuals who are simply defective units. I know that sounds cold, but it is true. Some folks are beyond help. A 13 year old who would break into a house and rape an elderly woman (amongst the other offenses already on his record) is just such a defective unit. Let them ROT in prison. I think prison needs to be focused on PUNISHMENT not rehabilitation. That is first and foremost the problem with our penal system.

S said...

I am not willing to make that judgment about a 13 year-old. Certainly not in a way that's irrevocable. All these defendants are asking for is a chance to make a case to the parole board some day. If, as you suggest, they are defective, then you don't have anything to worry about because a parole board won't release them. But what's wrong with at least leaving open the possibility that they can be rehabilitated?

I would also disagree with your final point. I think the exact opposite is true of our penal system. We have focused on punishment above all things to our great detriment. The vast majority of incarcerated persons will someday be released. It would benefit us all to help rehabilitate them so they can be productive members of society upon release.

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