The Effect of the USSC Decisions on State Criminal Justice Systems

Its not often that we know what the fall-out is after a Supreme Court decisions tells the states that some of its criminal justice practices are no longer permissible.  Yet, the Tampa Tribune did exactly that on September 2, 2012.[1]  In Courts grappling with juveniles’ life sentences[2], we hear from county prosecutors and public defenders on the fall out from both Miller v. Alabama No. 10-9646 (2012) and Graham v. Florida No. 08-7412 (2010).  Both of these cases dealt with juvenile sentencing and the eighth amendment.  First, in Graham, the Court invalidated sentencing juveniles to life without parole for any crime less than homicide as violating the Eighth Amendment.  Then in Miller, the Court went a step further and struck down sentencing schemes that required life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide.  Taken together, the cases disallow the sentencing of juveniles to life.

The Court clearly seems to be on track to forcing state criminal justice systems to be more lenient toward anyone convicted before majority. [3]  And, as is usual the Court in these cases did not answer any questions that are not asked.  In each one (Roper, Graham and Miller) the Court took the most severe juvenile sentence off the menu leaving the states to grapple with the question of what is next?  What types of sentences will be judged constitutional?

According to the Tampa Tribune, judges and prosecutors are working like actuarial accountants—investigating the life expectancy and working backwards to create sentences that would be in the ‘safe zone’.  Yet, there is no consistency and sentencing is now variable and individual; “Part depends on who the judge is, who the prosecutor is, how the person has done since incarcerated…” said a Miami Dade public defender.

And the article also points out the loophole left to prosecutors—the Court disallowed automatic sentencing of life without parole.  Life without parole may still be constitutional as may long sentences of seventy-five plus years since the word ‘life’ is not mentioned.  Or, is the invalidation of life sentences for juveniles the next step for the Court and should states get ahead of the curve and simply adjust now?

The decisions of the Supreme Court do not necessarily make life easier on those that must apply them, and clearly in this case, the decisions do not help the lower courts that must now determine what sentences are still viable under the new rulings.  This article is a great resource for showing students the trickle down effects of a decision and the open-ended nature of all the questions we investigate when we study constitutional law.

[1] A hat tip goes to the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog for pointing out the article.

[3] Recall in Roper v. Simmons 543 US 551 (2005) the Court ruled that capital punishment for juveniles is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.


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Filed under Attorneys, Trials, and Punishments

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