Right on the heels of my post about juvenile offenders comes this decision from CT’s Supreme Court today. In State v. Anthony Allen, a 5-0 majority, in a decision authored by Justice Katz, held that C.G.S. 53a-35a(1), which mandates Life Without Parole (LWOP) for juveniles convicted of a capital felony, does not violate the Eight Amendment to the US Constitution.
The defendant, in making his argument, relied heavily on Roper v. Simmons:
The defendant contends that the sociological and physiological evidence on which Roper relied, which demonstrates that persons under the age of eighteen differ from adults in terms of their culpability and moral responsibility, necessarily dictates a similar result because a life sentence without the possibility of release excludes the possibility of rehabilitation, the main objective for juvenile offenders.
The Court, however, reads Roper as narrowly as it was written: for death cases only. But the court doesn’t dismiss the claim outright – in fact, it seems as though the judges on the panel may agree that LWOP is not appropriate for juvenile defendants.
They cite, favorably, all the studies cited in Roper about the development of the juvenile mind and disfavorably compares the rates of juvenile incarceration in the US to that of other countries:
We recognize that the overwhelming majority of countries around the world do not permit the imposition of a mandatory life sentence on a person under the age of eighteen; see Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States (2005) p. 106 available at http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/usa/clwop/report.pdf (only fourteen countries permit life sentences for juveniles, either with or without possibility of release); and that the Supreme Court indicated in Roper that international practices are relevant to this constitutional question. Roper v. Simmons, supra, 543 U.S. 578. Moreover, we agree that the large number of juveniles serving life sentences in the United States as compared to those few other countries that permit such a sentence raises deeply troubling questions. See Amnesty International, supra, pp. 1, 106 (estimating that there are 2225 juveniles serving life sentences in United States, but only twelve in rest of world).
However, Justice Katz follows several other state and federal courts that have dealt with this question in deciding that this is an issue left to the legislature:
The delineation between juveniles and adults for purposes of prosecution and punishment is a public policy determination reserved to the legislative branch of government, except where constitutional principles apply. The eighth amendment affords heightened significance to the ‘‘diminished culpability’’ of juveniles, but the reasoning of Roper does not extend to the present case. Accordingly, in the absence of a constitutional prohibition against the imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of release, the wisdom of this sentencing scheme remains with the legislature.
As advances are made in the study of brain functioning of adolescents [see, for example, this amicus brief in Roper], challenges such as these will continue to grow. Hopefully the legislature can cut this off by carefully and honestly considering the continued viability of LWOP for juvenile offenders. After all, they are the ones with the most hope of rehabilitation.