New Mexico Case Next Juvenile Venture for Supreme Court?

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For juvenile justice advocates and service providers, there were some lofty expectations for the Obama administration and the 111th Congress. It is quite a surprise, then, that the branch of government that has taken the keenest interest in juvenile justice has been the United States Supreme Court. 

There was the Graham v. Florida decision this year that ended life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicides. The decision immediately impacted more than 100 inmates who were arrested when they were juveniles, and already, the case is being used in at least one state court (Pennsylvania) to challenge LWOP sentences for all juveniles.

In 2011 the court will hear a case out of North Carolina that could establish boundaries for interrogation of juvenile suspects on school grounds, by either law enforcement or school officials. (Click here for more on that, and check back Friday for some additional information in the Weekly Notes column).

Last week, the New Mexico Supreme Court made a ruling that may lead to the Roberts Court’s next foray into juvenile justice. The court overturned the New Mexico Court of Appeals’ decision that the state must use juries (not judges) to determine the fate of juveniles facing potential adult sentences.

Here’s the gist of the situation, which involved a young man named “Rudy B.,” who shot three people, rendering one paraplegic:

Anyone over 14 in New Mexico who is accused of first-degree murder is automatically tried as an adult, and juveniles accused of most non-violent or status offenses are statutorily kept within the juvenile justice system. In between those groups is a group dubbed “youthful offenders,” and New Mexico has a unique system of handling their potential movement from juvenile court into the adult system.

Youthful Offenders’ appear before a juvenile judge for adjudication. If the prosecutor feels that an adult sentence should be considered, he or she can file a motion at the outset of the case. If the juvenile is adjudicated (guilty), New Mexico law requires the judge to conduct an amenability hearing to determine whether an adult sentence is appropriate for him.

The judge must make two findings in order for a juvenile to receive adult years: that “the child is not amenable to treatment or rehabilitation as a child in available facilities,” and “the child is not eligible for commitment to an institution for children with developmental disabilities or mental disorders.”

To arrive at those findings, New Mexico law provides six factors for judges to consider:

-The seriousness of the alleged offense

-Whether the alleged offense was committed in a violent or premeditated manner

-Use of a firearm

-Whether the offense was against another person

-The maturity of the child

-Previous criminal record and other history of the child

-The prospects for adequate protection of the public if the juvenile was to be handled only in the juvenile system, which can only hold him until age 21.

-Any other “relevant factor.”

New Mexico’s approach basically reverses the process of every other juvenile justice system. Most states transfer a juvenile’s case into adult court at the front end of the case, by way of automatic transfer or because a prosecutor or judge decides it to be so. Thus, unless he was waived back to juvenile court by a judge, the entirety of a juvenile’s case would be handled in the adult court, meaning if the case went to trial he would be judged and sentenced by a jury.  

Some states allow for blended sentences that include juvenile time followed (if need be) by adult time. But for most juveniles, once they are in adult court, they often face the same mandatory-minimum sentences as adults for certain violent, gun- or drug-related crimes.

New Mexico handles all juvenile cases except first-degree murder in the juvenile court construct, and then decides whether or not the offender can be handled by the rehabilitation-minded juvenile justice system. It has conducted business that way since 1993. If the judge decides a juvenile is not amenable to rehabilitation within the juvenile justice system, that judge can impose a sentence anywhere within the range of the juvenile justice and adult guidelines for the crimes committed.

In practice, the process appears to keep down the number of juveniles sentenced to adult prison. In 2008 there were 160 motions for amenability hearings, and less than a dozen resulted in juveniles getting adult sentences.

What looks appealing is that the New Mexico system “bothers to undertake the analysis at all,” said Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which filed an amicus brief in the case. “The judge stops, counts to ten, and sees how it all stacks up. That’s a good thing.”

So why do Levick and some other juvenile advocates want to see the process change? Because in their eyes, the fact that anyone but a jury gets to decide the fate of a juvenile facing adult sanctions violates the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution.

In Rudy B’s case, Children’s Court Judge Monica Zamora decided he could not be sentenced within the juvenile justice system and gave him the maximum for his crime: 25 years. Zamora heard from a juvenile probation officer at the amenability hearing who said Rudy was amenable to treatment, but “the question was are the programs available” for an older juvenile.

This suggests that had Rudy been younger or come into the system at a time when services were more readily available, either circumstance might have made the difference between a juvenile sentence and a 25-year prison sentence. A jury would be less likely than a judge to think about such logistical factors.

Rudy’s public defender, Theodosia Johnson, appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals that only a jury should consider new evidence relating to the length of a sentence. The court agreed in August of 2009.

Johnson’s argument was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 landmark decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey. In that case, the court established a bright-line rule that “other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“The problem in New Mexico is Apprendi,” Levick said. It goes against “the system we have subscribed to for years. The jury is always better at fact-finding.”

In Rudy’s case, public defender Johnson argued, Judge Zamora had considered facts that increased his penalty. And to boot, the standard for the amenability hearings is lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Court of Appeals agreed with Johnson; the New Mexico Supreme Court did not.

Last week, in a 4-1 decision, the court overturned the decision because the majority believed that the lower court had not properly considered a relatively new decision by the U.S. Supreme Court: Oregon v. Ice.

“Ice” was an apartment complex supervisor who, on two separate occasions, burglarized an apartment and molested an 11-year-old girl while he was inside. The trial judge in the case decided to give Ice separate sentences for the burglaries and the sexual assaults, and made those sentences consecutive.

The judge made the decision to issue sentences consecutively instead of concurrently because an Oregon law allows such a decision, but only after a judge considers certain facts. 

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the judge was within Sixth Amendment boundaries when she made that decision. The New Mexico Supreme Court saw that ruling as the first time the high court had set a boundary on its Apprendi ruling. And to four of the justices, New Mexico’s amenability hearing process falls outside the boundary.

Had the high court not ruled the way it did on Oregon v. Ice, the majority opinion said, “we would be hard-pressed to disagree with our Court of Appeals that judge-made amenability determinations…violate the Apprendi rule.”

Levick disagreed, to put it mildly.

The New Mexico high court “so completely misunderstood” Ice, she said, she doesn’t know exactly where to begin.

The trial judge in Oregon v. Ice made a decision about whether or not different sentences should be imposed consecutively. But those sentences did not originate with her, they originated with a jury. To Levick, “that’s a far cry from a judge making findings in [Rudy B.] on a host of issues that would unquestionably flip a case from juvenile to adult court.”

The lone dissenting judge, Edward Chavez, was equally vehement. From his dissent:

“The Framers of the Bill of Rights would be alarmed to learn that a child can be condemned to an adult prison for up to a life sentence without at least the same constitutional protections afforded adults..”

Will the U.S. Supreme Court decide to take this on? It is a virtual lock that Johnson will ask.

“It’s very likely we will” appeal to the Supreme Court, Johnson told JJ Today. She said she “very much agrees” with Levick’s stance that Oregon v. Ice was misapplied.

“I think the dissent got it right,” Johnson said.

For the time being, any decision will only affect New Mexico juveniles. But the efficacy of  transferring juveniles has been questioned of late, and the Justice Department has set in motion a survey of transferred juveniles that could reveal some rather unwieldy patterns when it comes to juveniles in adult court.

One day not far from now, other states could consider New Mexico’s process if they’re pressured to devise a system that keeps transfer rates low and the process fair; but not if those states are worried about  constitutionality.