Who Are the Juvenile Lifers? New Report Paints a (Mostly) Grim Picture

The Sentencing Project has a new report on prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18.  Entitled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” the report presents the results from a national survey of more than 1,500 JLWOP inmates.  The report is very timely in light of the Supreme Court’s two pending JLWOP cases — perhaps the new information will help to convince the justices that JLWOP does indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, even for homicide crimes.  In any event, here are some of the highlights.

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New Report on Criminal-Justice Reforms in 2011: States Continue to Look for Ways to Cut Costs

In a new report entitled “The State of Sentencing 2011: Developments in Policy and Practice,” Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project summarizes the most recent set of criminal-justice reforms adopted across the United States.  Continuing a recurring theme in recent years, many of these reforms are intended to reduce incarceration numbers and corrections budgets.  Here are some highlights:

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Mandatory Minimums and the Disappearing Trial

The New York Times has a new article on mandatory minimums and plea bargaining.  The article notes the near-disappearance of the American criminal trial over the past generation:

Plea bargains have been common for more than a century, but lately they have begun to put the trial system out of business in some courtrooms. By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts.

Although there are doubtlessly multiple causes for this trend, the article focuses particularly on the role of mandatory minimums, which have given prosecutors an ever-increasing amount of leverage in plea negotiations.  Even an innocent defendant must think long and hard about going to trial when a plea would mean a sentence of only a couple of years of prison but a trial conviction might result in a mandatory minimum of ten years or more.  The system has effectively made a lie of the constitutional promise of a right to a jury trial.

When I cover this subject in Criminal Procedure, students inevitably wonder how to reconcile the practice of threatening defendants with mandatory minimum charges if they go to trial with the prosecutorial vindictiveness doctrine of Blackledge v. Perry.  The answer?  The Supreme Court carved out an exception to Blackledge and gave its stamp of approval to coerced guilty pleas in Bordenkircher v. Hayes.  A few years ago, I argued in this article that it was time for the Court to revisit Bordenkircher, especially in light of the Court’s revitalization of the jury-trial right in Apprendi v. New Jersey.  Sadly, the Court has not yet given any indication that it has noticed my argument.

Hat tip to Tony Cotton.

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No Sign of a Graham Revolution in the Sixth or Ninth Circuits

Last spring, in Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a sentence of life without parole may not be imposed on a juvenile for a non-homicide crime.  In so doing, the Court adopted a new, categorical approach to the Eighth Amendment analysis of non-capital sentences.  Although the Court left much uncertain about when and how rigorously this new approach would employed, Graham held out the possibility of a major break from the highly deferential approach to the review of non-capital sentences that has prevailed at least since Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991).

But, if an Eighth Amendment revolution is in the works, the Sixth and Ninth Circuits did not get the memo.  In United States v. Graham (No. 08-5993), the Sixth Circuit upheld the use of a juvenile conviction as a predicate to the imposition of a life sentence under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii).  (more…)

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State Legislatures Continue to Grapple With Corrections Budgets

I’ve just read the National Conference of State Legislatures’ new E-Bulletin on developments in sentencing and corrections policy. The dominant theme continues to be fiscal pressures and the need to rein in corrections spending.  States across the country are emphasizing community-based alternatives to imprisonment and enhanced services and release opportunities for inmates.  Here are some highlights from the first half of 2010:   (more…)

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