Weekly Notes: Walsh Act Delayed; LWOP in Penn.; Illinois’ mental health problem; and more

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***Pennsylvania leads the nation in two things: cheese steak consumption and locking up juveniles for life without parole (LWOP). One of those things will never change.

But the state’s penchant for locking juveniles for life is being challenged in the courts and in the state house. State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson (D) has introduced a bill that would end LWOP for all juveniles, and mandate that all juvenile convicts with life sentences have parole hearings by the age of 31. If they are not released at the hearing, they would then have a new hearing every three years.

At the court level, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court intentionally waited until the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Graham decision to schedule arguments in the case of Ian Cunningham, who received an LWOP sentence for second-degree murder. In Graham v Florida, the Supreme Court banned juvenile LWOP sentences for non-homicide crimes.

An LWOP sentence is automatic for murder convictions in Pennsylvania, even though Cunningham was present for the murder but did not actually commit it.

Cunningham’s case is on hold pending the outcome of another Eighth Amendment challenge at the state’s high court involving Qu’eed Batts, who received LWOP for first-degree murder. A ruling in Batts’ favor would make a decision on Cunningham unnecessary. The Batts case is being briefed, according to Supreme Court staff, but arguments are not scheduled yet.

Batts is a longshot to have his sentence overturned, because he was a known gang member and actually pulled the trigger on two people.

The Cunningham case may draw national interest. Although the Graham v Florida decision focused on cases other than homicides, some anti-LWOP advocates believe that Justice Anthony Kennedy left the decision open to inclusion of murder convicts like Cunningham with this comment in his majority opinion:

“The Court has recognized that defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers.”

***Don’t expect too much news on the Adam Walsh Act front anytime in the near future. Three states are in compliance with the act: Delaware, Florida and Ohio. The rest of the states, along with all of the territories and 177 Indian tribes, secured extensions until July 27, 2011. Justice recently finished taking public comment on some changes to the Walsh guidelines on registering and monitoring sex offenders, and it’s doubtful any states will seriously discuss implementation before those changes are finalized.

***In tangential Walsh Act news, the Youth Online Safety Working Group issued a set of recommendations for jurisdictions to consider about sexting. They are worth proliferating to school and law enforcement officials, because they stress using any and all alternatives to actually arresting and prosecuting youth for their involvement in the act. Some states have started debates about how to punish sexters in court, and because child pornography is involved, juveniles prosecuted under sexting laws could be exposed to inclusion on the national sex offender registry.

***Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson posted a short video on the Office of Justice Programs website about her office’s commitment to open and intelligent grant-making. Robinson also welcomes feedback from the public on how the office is doing.

That’s a smart decision, because the Nightline feature on Bush-era juvenile justice grant making went up on YouTube earlier this month, and already has about 1,600 views. That’s not exactly Muppets Sing Ode to Joy-popular, but it’s enough viewers that you want to remind people it all happened during a different administration.

***Good story today from Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Mills, and good radio piece by WBEZ’s Gabriel Spitzer, on the findings and recommendations of national experts regarding mental health services in Illinois’ eight juvenile secure facilities. The experts found, in a nutshell, that the facilities were woefully understaffed and underfunded when it came to handling mental health needs. The report is very reminiscent of what the New York Times found when it looked at what was happening in some of the New York’s juvenile facilities.

This is a big make or break point for Illinois juvenile justice, at least in terms of secure confinement. The department is about to change from a quasi-independent agency (it shares some services with adult corrections) to a division of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which also oversees child welfare. There is concern, and rightly so, that when it comes to money and resources, the “bad kids” of juvenile justice will lose out big time to the pitiable youth in the child welfare system.

But DCFS has overseen what many believe to be among the top five child welfare agencies in the country, and Gov. Pat Quinn (D) assigned DCFS veteran Arthur Bishop to head the new JJ agency. The key here is for Bishop to find some way to incorporate juvenile justice into the existing knowledge base and contracts for mental health services at DCFS. If he can’t, and the situation remains the same, it won’t be long before the threat of lawsuits or a Justice Department investigation looms.

***The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges published a piece by Nancy Gannon Hornberger on how to improve outcomes for status offenders. Hornberger, the executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, offers examples from states that have avoided detaining status offenders or are taking great pains to cut back on that practice. It’s an issue that a number of states will have to contemplate in a few years if the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act is reauthorized, because the Senate version of the bill includes a three-year phase out of the valid court order exception.