Weekly Notes: LWOP action; kids trying to get tried as adults; and more

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***Day number 823 of the Obama administration and still no nominee to serve as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

In other OJJDP news, the April meeting of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will likely be rescheduled for the end of May.

***Shameless plug for the story we posted yesterday on how the looming rewrite/overhaul of No Child Left Behind could or should include education of incarcerated juveniles. With a presidential election on the horizon and debates over federal spending in the foreground, this is by far the best chance for any change in youth policy in the near future.

***Okay, one more shameless plug: check out our piece on the new Indiana University institute, which will offer access to thousands of hours of juvenile and child welfare court footage collected by Calamari Productions since 1998.

Calamari Productions, by the way, is a really refreshing name to report in a field dominated by long titles that either double the length of sentences or lead to stories with a confusing array of acronyms. Also, calamari is delicious.

***There has been lots of action lately on legal challenges to life without parole sentences for juveniles. Most people who read this column know that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in Graham v Florida that LWOP sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of anything other than a homicide.

In late March, as Holly Herman reported in The Reading Eagle, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled against two inmates seeking to have life without parole sentences vacated for homicides they committed as juveniles. The appeal of the two men was based largely on Graham v Florida.

In early April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine inmates who are serving LWOP sentences for homicides. And this week, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., announced it was appealing the sentences of two 14-year-olds (one from Arkansas, one from Alabama) to the Supreme Court.

On the day that EJI announced the appeals, the New York Times published a well-written piece from Adam Liptak and Lisa Fay Petak on LWOP sentences, which used the case of a Missouri man who was sentenced at 14 for killing his brother. The biggest news in the article was the reporters’ information about a New York University study that identified 10 courts that have decided not to apply Graham to cases involving killings. The study also identifies seven other cases where courts have said the same thing about defendants who were accomplices to homicides.

Liptak and Petak described the high court’s attention to death penalty and life sentencing in the past decade as: “The Supreme Court has been methodically whittling away at severe sentences.” With so many appeals coming from different states now, it seems that the court will eventually take on the constitutionality of LWOP for all juveniles.

Aside from the court taking on the issue and then maintaining the status quo, there are probably four approaches they could take:

-Require judges to take age into account when considering an LWOP sentence for a juvenile. This is what Chief Justice John Roberts advocated in Graham, and it could be that he embraces the same philosophy with juvenile homicide convicts. This approach would simply mandate that states develop some manner in which its judges must weigh the maturity and circumstances of a juvenile before issuing an LWOP sentence.

-Ban LWOP sentences only for younger teens. Questioning by justice in two recent cases --  Graham and for a recent case about questioning juveniles without Mirandizing themindicated there is far more acceptance among the justices of the notion that younger teens have diminished capacity and culpability than there is of the same notion with older teens.

But applying that to a ruling could be messy, as it would draw a bright line on youth somewhere other than between 17 and 18.  The ages in play for such a line would probably be 13, 14 or 15.

-Ban LWOP for juveniles who are convicted in connection with a murder, but who did not actually directly pull the commit the homicide. EJI’s Arkansas case deals with this: the 14-year-old was present at the robbery of a video store, but it was his older cousin who killed the store clerk.

-Ban LWOP for all juveniles. This would require the plaintiffs to persuade the court if the Graham ruling deems LWOP unconstitutional because of age, it is unjust not to shield all juveniles from that group because of the crime they committed.

It is the toughest sell of the three because there is a counter argument: killing someone is universally regarded as a class of crime unto itself, so the practice of committing the convict to die in prison is not cruel or unusual regardless of the age of the killer.

*** Click here to access Juvenile Justice Information Exchange's entire five-part series on Kyle Boyer, a Georgia teen who became addicted to painkillers, and his involvement in the juvenile justice system. Boyer has been clean for months now, the articles report.  It seems the credit goes to two parties: a new friend who took Kyle into his church group, and a juvenile drug court judge who didn’t give up on him.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that without drug court, we’d have buried our son by now,” said Suzanne Boyle, Kyle’s mom, in the second part of the series.

It is an interesting time for drug courts. The concept seems to have the support of the Obama Justice Department, and there are plenty of courts are fiercely defended on the local level.

But there has been skepticism from researchers and national advocates for some time. Youth Today’s Kaitlin Mayhew reported last month on two reports that called the effectiveness of drug courts into question. More than  10 years ago, in the early days of drug courts, Youth Today reported on spotty results from the Justice Department youth court pilots.  

***Mentioned this in our Top Headlines today: A Pennsylvania 17-year-old, Luis Roman, asked to be tried as an adult instead of as a juvenile, reports Kevin Amerman of the Morning Call, and the judge agreed to his request.

According to Amerman’s report, the young man made a really misguided decision. He basically passed on a sentence that would have meant a rehabilitative setting for, at the most, four years until he turned 21. Instead, he could face two different sentences of up to 20 years in adult prison.

Roman’s reason? “I'm not trying to go back to juvie,” Roman said. “In juvie, there are more kids who are disrespectful. I'm not trying to hear that.”

That’s possible. But Roman is reported to be a member of the Latin Kings, so we trust that this judge explored any other reason Roman might have for wanting to go to prison, such as moving up in his gang hierarchy.

The story reminded JJ Today of something a Florida juvenile judge told us once: That some youths actually asked if they could be transferred to adult court because they thought they’d get easier sentences there. While she had the authority to order them into secure placement or residential, she explained, the juveniles were willing to gamble that the adult system would place them on probation.