Thursday, May 29, 2014

Taking Graham and Miller to Heart


BY:  Hope R. Metcalf, Lecturer, Yale Law School

This week’s ruling in Hall v. Florida was welcome evidence that the U.S. Supreme Court is in the business of policing its own rulings to protect the most vulnerable criminal defendants. 

The last decade has seen a cascade of decisions banning the death penalty for people with intellectually disabilities and juveniles and limiting juvenile life without parole (JLWOP).   These are the same decisions that have signaled openness on the part of the Court—or at least by Justice Kennedy—that “[t]he opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.”  Equally encouraging is the Court’s repeated reliance on an individual’s dignity as a touchstone for Eighth Amendment analysis.  As Vicki Jackson and others and others have observed, the concept of dignity provides one point of contact—albeit slight—between U.S. jurisprudence and international human rights norms.  

The Court again sounded theme of dignity in Tuesday’s decision.  Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy declared that that “[t]he Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity reflects the nation we have been, the nation we are, and the nation we aspire to be.  This is to affirm that the nation’s constant, unyielding purpose must be to transmit the Constitution so that its precepts and guarantees retain their meaning and force.”  By that logic, Florida’s formalistic interpretation of the 2002 decision of Atkins v. Virginia, which had banned the execution of intellectually disabled individuals, could not stand. 

Petitioner Freddie Lee Hall, who had an IQ test of 71 and a documented history of disabilities, was just shy of Florida’s statutory cutoff of 70 for exemption from the death penalty.  Pointing to established clinical guidelines that mental retardation is to be judged on several different bases, the Court held that “Freddie Lee Hall may or may not be intellectually disabled, but the law requires that he have the opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disability, including deficits in adaptive functioning over his lifetime.”

The Hall decision should stand as a warning to state lawmakers who would use legislative maneuvers to shirk compliance with the Supreme Court’s evident discomfort with the excessively punitive nature of the U.S. criminal justice system.  Starting with Roper and continuing with Miller and Graham, the Court has reaffirmed that children – even those convicted of serious crimes – deserve special consideration and cannot be subjected to the death penalty, life without parole for non-homicide crimes, or mandatory life without parole for any crime.  Yet some states—Louisiana, for example—have responded by imposing mandatory sentences of 35 or more years, claiming that such sentences are not “life” and therefore outside the reach of Supreme Court jurisprudence.

By contrast, for the past two years, Connecticut’s bi-partisan sentencing commission has pushed for a new approach to juvenile sentencing that would take Roper, Miller, and Graham to heart.  Under the proposed legislation, individuals convicted of serious crimes as young people and serving prison terms of 20 years or more would be eligible for a sentence review after they had served 60 percent of their time.  The bill would not have guaranteed release, but would have followed the Court’s admonition that juvenile offenders must have a “meaningful opportunity for review.”  

The proposed legislation would address the many failings documented by a report by Quinnipiac’s Civil Justice Clinic and Yale’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Youth Matters:  A Second Look for Connecticut's Children Serving Long Prison Sentences.  The report found that Connecticut’s current sentencing practices—which impose mandatory sentences of 50 years or more on juveniles— to be out of step with international law and other nations’ practices.  Interviews with some of the men and women who were convicted as children confirm what Roper teaches:  that young people are both less culpable and more capable of change.  The report gathered stories of individuals who had made tremendous personal transformations, despite having grown up and spent the majority of their lives in prison. 

The bill reflected negotiations by the bi-partisan Connecticut Sentencing Commission and included a wide array of views.  Mark Levin, of the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Institute, praised the bill as "a modest step [that] puts Connecticut's law in this area on firmer scientific and legal ground.”   The proposal passed the House almost unanimously but, as the Hartford Courant reported, it ran aground in the Senate, not on the merits or due to popular opposition, but election-year politics.  Republicans, in a throwback to the 1990s-era “tough-on-crime” posturing, held the bill hostage with a slew of last-minute amendments to upend recent reforms, including the 2012 repeal of the death penalty. 

The Sentencing Commission appears undeterred, according to the Courant article.  The Supreme Court’s holding in Hall should give them courage that “the nation’s constant, unyielding purpose must be to transmit the Constitution so that its precepts and guarantees retain their meaning and force.”  The “second look” legislation would do just that.  Connecticut’s children – and the adults they will become –deserve nothing less.

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Thank you for a very good piece. Are you sure that Louisiana now requires a 50-year sentence in place of LWOP for some juveniles? I think this bill calls for 35 years prior to parole:

Posted by: Josh | May 30, 2014 1:47:21 PM

Thanks, Josh. You're right and we made the change. An earlier version of the Louisiana bill imposed a 50 year sentence,.

Posted by: Martha Davis | May 30, 2014 6:07:00 PM

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