Roberts Rules

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Juvenile justice advocates and service providers had lofty expectations for the Obama administration and the 111th Congress. But the U.S. Supreme Court is the branch of government that has had the greatest impact on juvenile justice over the past year.

The high court took two cases from Florida regarding the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and acted on one of them, banning the sentence for any juvenile convicted of any crime other than a homicide. Next year, it will take up the issue of police and social worker interrogations in schools. And there is chance that in the near future, the court will take on a case that could have major implications for the process of transferring juveniles into adult court.

These are the cases through which the court under Chief Justice John Roberts is putting its stamp on juvenile justice.

Graham v. Florida

The case: Terrance Graham, who is now 23, pleaded guilty at age 16 to armed burglary and assault and received a short sentence and probation. Six months later, when he was 17, he was involved in a home invasion robbery and pleaded guilty to violating the terms of his probation.

The minimum sentence Graham could have received was five years. He was sentenced to the maximum of life in prison, which, because Florida has no parole, meant life in prison with no possibility of release.

The ruling: Six Supreme Court justices decided that the life sentence a Florida judge imposed in 2006 on Graham was “cruel and unusual punishment.” Five of the concurring justices agreed that all juveniles should be protected from life without parole sentences for crimes that are not homicides. Roberts, who agreed with five other justices regarding Graham’s specific sentence, limited his decision to just this case and disagreed with expanding the ruling to all such juveniles.

The impact: The specific group covered by the decision – juveniles convicted in non-homicide cases – comprises about 200 people around the country, many of them in Florida. But juvenile advocates and lawyers have already begun to use Graham as a basis to challenge life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicides (there are thousands of them), and a legal theory has been floated on how to use the decision to challenge state laws on the transfer of juveniles into adult court.

In its ruling, the court said juveniles are entitled to a “meaningful opportunity” to obtain parole. Juvenile advocates followed the court’s lead and mostly refused to suggest a highest tolerable length of sentence before a parole hearing, out of fear that such a suggested ceiling would immediately become a norm. They would like to see states offer parole early in the life sentence of a juvenile.

Though life sentences without parole were banned, what about a 90-year sentence? Or a 75-year sentence? Or four consecutive 25-year sentences?

Florida judges have already sentenced (or re-sentenced) a number of juveniles to sentences that some see as the “functional equivalent” of life without parole.

States that try to substitute something like that for life without parole, said Graham’s attorney, Bryan Gowdy, “will be facing challenges from people like me.”

A recent appeal in California indicated that some courts may embrace the spirit of Graham. Victor Mendez based his appeal of an 84-year sentence on Graham, saying his sentence was “materially indistinguishable” from a life without parole sentence.

The California Second District Court of Appeal decided that Mendez was technically not covered by Graham – because he wasn’t actually sentenced to life without parole – yet still felt “guided by the principles set forth in Graham in evaluating Mendez’s claim that his sentence is cruel and unusual.” The court remanded Mendez’s case back to a lower court for resentencing.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina

The case: A North Carolina teen, identified in court only as J.D.B., confessed to a string of neighborhood burglaries when police and school administrators questioned him at school, without advising him of his rights or calling his parents. Present in the room when J.D.B. was questioned: a juvenile crimes investigator, a school resource officer, and the assistant principal.

The ruling: J.D.B.’s lawyers argued to the North Carolina Supreme Court that, even if the average questioned student is not in custody, a young teen who is a special education student should be considered as being in custody , which means that J.D.B. should have been advised of his Miranda rights if the interrogation were to continue. The court, in a 4-3 ruling, was not persuaded. The U.S. Supreme Court announced in October that it would consider the case, and it could take on the larger issue of whether juveniles questioned on school grounds should be considered “in custody” and read their rights.

At the same time, the court agreed to hear appeals of two Oregon cases, Camreta v. Greene and Alford v. Greene, which concern the same family and deal with the questioning of suspected child abuse victims at school without parental consent. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the constitutional rights of the alleged abuse victims were violated and that police and social workers needed a warrant to question the victims at school.

The potential impact: While the Graham ruling could define the boundaries of the juvenile justice machine, J.D.B. v. North Carolina and the two Oregon cases could regulate a major gear that turns both the juvenile and child welfare systems: police and social worker interaction with youths in school.

Jorge Rodriguez, who spent 13 years as a juvenile public defender in Indianapolis, said the nexus of school and law enforcement is a serious gray area that has long needed some judicial guidelines.

Questionable interrogations of juveniles in school are “frequent enough that it doesn’t surprise me when it happens,” Rodriguez said. “We see the police using the school as an access avenue to a kid without their parents.”

Indiana requires a parent to be present in order for anything a juvenile says to be admissible in a court proceeding. Rodriguez said a police officer often sits in a corner while the principal questions the student.

If the student makes any incriminating statements, Rodriguez said, he usually assumes that’s it, and will also confess later with his parents in the room. “They don’t understand that the first admission is not usable against them. I’ve seen situations where, clearly to me, [law enforcement] are using school officials and setting to circumvent the law, knowing they can’t do it directly,” Rodriguez said.

In the Oregon cases, the appeals court specifically held that the presence of an armed police officer – even if the officer is not the one doing the interview – violates the child’s rights.

Rudy B. v. New Mexico

The case: A New Mexico teen, identified in court as Rudy B., pleaded guilty in juvenile court in 2005 to two counts of shooting from a motor vehicle and two counts of aggravated battery. Those charges stem from Rudy shooting three people in a gang-related incident; one of his victims was rendered quadriplegic.

New Mexico has a unique system of handling potential sentencing of juveniles to adult prison. Those accused of first-degree murder are automatically transferred to adult court for trial. For any other juvenile, prosecutors must request an “amenability hearing” to determine whether an adult sentence is appropriate for a particular juvenile.

If the juvenile is adjudicated, then the judge presides over the amenability hearing. He or she must make two findings in order for a juvenile to receive an adult sentence: 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.”

The juvenile court judge, Monica Zamora, found Rudy B.’s crimes and circumstances warranted an adult sentence, and she gave him the maximum of 25 years.

The ruling: Many advocates like the structure of New Mexico’s transfer system because it “bothers to undertake the analysis,” 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 10, and sees how it all stacks up. That’s a good thing.”

The problem for Levick and some other juvenile advocates is the fact that a judge – rather than a jury – makes a decision that could drastically change the severity of an adult sentence. Juvenile courts in America offer rehabilitation and a low ceiling on sentence length but do not, for the most part, allow jury trials.

But if a juvenile is determined to be an adult in the eyes of the court, Levick and others argue, he should have the right to let a jury decide what his sentence is, based on the precedent of a 2000 Supreme Court decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which established that “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.”

Rudy B.’s public defender, Theodosia Johnson, challenged the law, and the New Mexico Court of Appeals was receptive to the challenge. But the state supreme court reversed, saying that a recent U.S. Supreme Court case – Oregon v. Ice – allowed for some judicial discretion in sentencing.

Johnson said she will appeal to the high court for consideration, and expects to have the papers filed well before the Jan. 19 deadline.

The impact: 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, either by way of an automatic transfer or after a prosecutor’s or a judge’s decision to transfer. Thus, unless he was waived back to juvenile court by a judge, the whole case for the juvenile would be handled in the adult court, meaning if the case went to trial, he would be judged by a jury.

But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Rudy B.’s favor could add a new element to the practice of transferring juveniles, and not just in New Mexico. In November, public defenders in Maryland filed a brief arguing that a jury should decide whether a 13-year-old boy should be tried in adult court.

Public Defender Allen Wolf said he and co-counsel Kavita Gupta based the Maryland appeal on Apprendi v. New Jersey. In his opinion, the fact that New Mexico rules on waiver after adjudication and Maryland handles transfer beforehand should be largely immaterial.

“We think that’s just a procedural mechanism without a substantive difference,” he said. “It’s a factual finding that changes the punishment from in our [juvenile’s] case eight years to potentially life in prison. That kind of factual finding has to be made by the jury.”

The state’s response is informative of the mounting attention to juries in cases that involved juveniles and adult court: Eleven state courts and three federal courts have considered whether Apprendi applied to juvenile waiver hearings.

Of those 14 courts, only two state courts – New Mexico in Rudy B. and Massachusetts in Quincy v. Commonwealth – found that Apprendi did apply.

“The Supreme Court usually wants to have several different appellate courts weigh in, have the dispute play out a bit” Wolf said. “Looking at New Mexico and the other cases, we’re getting a first wave.”