Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families

19Jan/140

Juveniles Facing Lifelong Terms Despite Rulings (New York Times)

Despite some incremental progress on the issue of unjust life sentences for youth, there remains far more work ahead to really see the fruits of what was supposed to mean a new opportunity at a productive life for some incarcerated youth. As one might predict, much of the resistance to more just sentencing laws and guidelines for youth wreaks of the same over-generalizations they accuse of proponents of the law of.

From the New York Times...

In decisions widely hailed as milestones, the United States Supreme Court in 2010 and 2012 acted to curtail the use of mandatory life sentences for juveniles, accepting the argument that children, even those who are convicted of murder, are less culpable than adults and usually deserve a chance at redemption.

But most states have taken half measures, at best, to carry out the rulings, which could affect more than 2,000 current inmates and countless more in years to come, according to many youth advocates and legal experts.

“States are going through the motions of compliance,” said Cara H. Drinan, an associate professor of law at the Catholic University of America, “but in an anemic or hyper-technical way that flouts the spirit of the decisions.”

Lawsuits now before Florida’s highest court are among many across the country that demand more robust changes in juvenile justice. One of the Florida suits accuses the state of skirting the ban on life without parole in nonhomicide cases by meting out sentences so staggering that they amount to the same thing.

Other suits, such as one argued last week before the Illinois Supreme Court, ask for new sentencing hearings, at least, for inmates who received automatic life terms for murder before 2012 — a retroactive application that several states have resisted.

There remains huge resistance to more just laws for youth.

The Supreme Court decisions built on a 2005 ruling that banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders as cruel and unusual punishment, stating that offenders younger than 18 must be treated differently from adults.

The 2010 decision, Graham v. Florida, forbade sentences of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of murder and said offenders must be offered a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The ruling applied to those who had been previously sentenced.

Cases like Shimeek’s aim to show that sentences of 70 years, 90 years or more violate that decision. Florida’s defense was that Shimeek’s sentence was not literally “life without parole” and that the life span of a young inmate could not be predicted.

Probably no more than 200 prisoners were affected nationally by the 2010 decision, and they were concentrated in Florida. So far, of 115 inmates in the state who had been sentenced to life for nonhomicide convictions, 75 have had new hearings, according to the Youth Defense Institute at the Barry University School of Law in Orlando. In 30 cases, the new sentences have been for 50 years or more. One inmate who had been convicted of gun robbery and rape has received consecutive sentences totaling 170 years.

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