Out of court

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What is Cruel and Unusual?

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court found that a life without parole sentence for a 17 year old who was found guilty of two very violent robberies was a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. The question: what constitutes 'cruel and unusual punishment?' has been answered by the Supreme Court this way: "courts must look beyond historical conceptions to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." In other words, an acceptable punishment in one era (death penalty for rape) might become cruel and unusual in another era..

100 years ago, the Court said "that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to the offense." 20 years ago the Court upheld a life without parole sentence for possessing a large quantity of cocaine and narrowed this by finding that 'cruel and unusual' "forbids only extreme sentences that are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime." And just 7 years ago, the Court upheld a sentence of 25 years to life for the theft of a few golf clubs under California's three-strikes scheme. However, parole was still possible there..

In comparison to those cases, you would think very violent robberies deserve a life without parole sentence. The distinction is that for someone under 18 it is currently rare to get a sentence that long where no homicide was committed. This reflects a societal judgment not to impose such harsh sentences on juveniles, suggesting that such a sentence is 'cruel and unusual.' Underlying this is the notion of hope: juveniles have a better chance of rehabilitating than adults. Juveniles' "actions are less likely to be evidence of "irretrievably depraved character" than are the actions of adults.."

Due to the violent and repetitive nature of the robberies, this juvenile deserves to be imprisoned for some time in order to protect society from his "escalating pattern of criminal conduct." Nonetheless, he also should get a shot down the road to show that he has matured, changed and is ready to re-enter society. Under the Court's decision, the state of Florida could still deny him release on parole the rest of his life. But at least he has a reason to change..

Since the 1980's, we have come down harder on young offenders because so many of their crimes were as bad as adult crimes. Until the late 1980's in Washington, anyone under 18 accused of any crime was entitled to a hearing to determine if the case should be sent to adult court. Now 16 and 17 year old offenders accused of murder and other serious violent offenses are automatically sent to adult court to face adult level punishments. This trend to punish juvenile offenders more and more like adults swept across the nation. Obviously states like Florida took it much further than Washington did. Yet maybe now the pendulum is swinging away from such harsh treatment of juveniles. Just as more and more courts are trying to treat drug offenders instead of incarcerate them, perhaps we will begin looking at those horrible choices of youth with more mercy..

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