Weekly Notes: Guide to Good Reads on LWOP; OJJDP@35 Event; Robinson Confirmed; and more

As we have mentioned before, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases next week that could very well limit the universe of juveniles who can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

A lot of the discussion takes an all-or-nothing stance on the issue: LWOP should be abolished, or it should not. In reality, a full ban on LWOP sentences for all juveniles is extremely unlikely. But the high court may end the practice in cases involving juvenile who are very young (under 13 perhaps?) or have not committed a homicide; or both.

Anyway, a lot of ink has been devoted to the cases by media and scholars alike (figurative ink anyway; most of it is online). Here’s a primer of sorts on what’s being discussed by whom:

The Legalese Division

— A discussion of the case by the Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute. http://topics.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/08-7412.

–An analysis by the Heritage Foundation that challenges one of the arguments made by the anti-LWOP crowd: that LWOP should go away because the United States stands virtually alone in the world in condoning a sentence that condemns juveniles to a life behind bars.


(For what it’s worth, JJ Today tends to agree with Heritage on that. If LWOP laws need to change it should be because it’s the right thing in America. The fact that Kenya, for example, signed some treaty that the U.S. did not doesn’t mean much. Children there are brutally beaten and sometimes killed by citizens if they are caught committing crimes that are considered misdemeanors (minor crimes) here, and police rarely seek out the perpetrators.)

News Feature/Analysis Division

–The Heritage Foundation, led by senior fellow Charles Stimson, developed a series called Adult Time for Adult Crime on its website, in which it profiles the cases of some inmates now doing LWOP sentences.

Whether you agree or disagree with the think tank, it’s a very compelling approach. One note, though: all of the profiles are of people who committed crimes that included homicide and those crimes were committed when the youth was more than 14 years old. So would Stimson and others at Heritage have a problem with youths younger than that, or convicted of lesser crimes, being shielded from LWOP? JJ Today tried Stimson Friday afternoon, will update this if we can get a hold of him. 

http://blog.heritage.org/category/rule-of-law/ .

–Two other news sources took the same approach on the other side of the fence. Alternet.org reporter Liliana Segura tells the story of a young prostitute who killed her pimp, and PBS profiles a young man serving a juvenile LWOP sentence for a string of robberies he may have committed to protect his mother’s life.

Segura: http://www.alternet.org/rights/143635/16-year_old_got_life_without_parole_for_killing_her_abusive_pimp_–_cruelty_of_condemning_teenagers_to_die_in_jail/.

PBS: www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/january-30-2009/juvenile-life-without-parole/2081.

Also from PBS, a map of LWOP sentences around the country:


–Two pieces from Slate.com on the case. Reporter Amy Bach writes that the whole Supreme Court case is based on the premise that both juveniles’ trials were fair; but was Sullivan’s an all-too-familiar case of bad lawyering for a juvenile offender facing dire circumstance?  Was the Sullivan case even legitimate? And reporter Dahlia Lithwick addresses many of the factors that could come into play as the court debates LWOP.

Bach: http://www.slate.com/id/2234594/pagenum/2.

Lithwick: http://www.slate.com/id/2234723/

Op-Ed Division

–Georgetown University Law Professor Kristin Hennig on the haphazard application of LWOP: http://writ.news.findlaw.com/commentary/20091026_henning.html.

–Philadelphia Inquirer: “It is hoped that the high court will conclude that sending a minor away for life for a non-homicide offense violates the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”


–Lester Jackson, Ph.D: “Those who seek an end to LWOP do not claim, because they cannot, that there is no risk in releasing felons who have committed multiple acts of violence.”


–Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.): “There is a simple reason the criminal justice system should treat juveniles and adults differently: Kids are a helluva lot dumber than adults.”


–Dwayne Betts (who received nine years in adult prison for carjacking) on Rashid, a young man who rode the bus to prison with him and would never breathe a free breath again.


–Georgia State University Law Professor Jonathan Todres: With LWOP, “we are conceding that we don’t have confidence as a society that we will provide the necessary guidance to ensure that child becomes a productive member of society.”


–Jeff Fagan says Florida’s own numbers show that LWOP sentences don’t do anything to curb juvenile crime.


Anybody got some other links to good reads on the subject? Post them as a comment!

***As expected, Laurie Robinson has been confirmed as assistant attorney general for justice programs. That was fast, though, considering that Robinson’s peer in the civil rights division – Thomas Perez – waited for almost half a year after his confirmation hearing for a floor vote. Robinson was confirmed one month after her hearing.

It should not be long now before the field finds out two things: who the nominee is to lead the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (it’s likely to be Karen Baynes), and what changes (if any) will be made to the organizational structure of the Office of Justice Programs. 

***A final plug for Youth Today’s OJJDP@35 event next week, which will bring most of the former OJJDP administrators together for a discussion of their experience managing the office. Registration for the event itself is closed, but we already have tons of relevant resources and articles on the history of OJJDP leadership on a special Youth Today website.

Also, for any D.C. folks who aren’t coming or didn’t get to register, JJ Today will be holding an informal get-together after the conference at 6:30 p.m. at Stoney’s  Lounge (between 14th and 15th streets NW, on P Street, across from the Whole Foods store). Come by and hear about the panels or just to see old friends.  

***A three-judge panel for the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled it is unconstitutional to require a man to register as a sex offender because at the age of 18 he had consensual sex with a 15-year-old. The man completed his probation and his record was expunged.

It’s a notable outcome as states contemplate the implications of passing legislation to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Act. States have a lot of discretion regarding who they will add to the national sex offender database. Now, there is a precedent that a state court considers registration for some youthful sex offenders to be unconstitutional. That could help prevent a lazy or overburdened state legislature from hastily passing some catch-all registration requirement.


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