Major Changes to Law Regarding Juvenile Offenders

January 25, 2016, marked a change for juveniles convicted in the United States when both President Obama and the Supreme Court published pieces recognizing the difference between juvenile offenders and adults, and reformed two practices of the incarceration of juveniles. President Obama wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post about juveniles being subjected to solitary confinement and adopted the recommendations of the Justice Department, banning solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prison. In addition, the United States Supreme Court released their opinion in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, declaring that a juvenile offender cannot be sentenced to spend his/her entire life in prison, without giving him/her the possibility of parole, despite when he/she was sentenced. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court found that sentencing a minor to life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) was a “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. However, some states were not applying the ruling to juveniles that had been sentenced to LWOP before the 2012 decision. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, any juvenile, despite when he/she was sentenced will have a parole hearing at some point.

These opinions reflect America’s stance on juvenile justice and the differentiation between an adult’s ability to make choices in contemplation of the outcome, and the impulsive nature of a juvenile. Our juvenile system is very different than our adult system. Just as we recognize that youth are different than adults and we restrict their behaviors accordingly through laws governing their actions, such as curfews, the right to vote, the right to purchase and consume alcohol and tobacco, our justice system must be structured to take into account a juvenile’s lack of development when sentencing and incarcerating them.

The juvenile justice system seeks to rehabilitate the juvenile, to return them to society as a productive member. As President Obama points out, solitary confinement of a juvenile does not rehabilitate a juvenile. “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.” In line with that reasoning, a sentence of LWOP could not possibly be rehabilitating when the juvenile knows that there is no possibility of life beyond bars.

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court cited previous Supreme Court cases dealing with juvenile sentencing:

• “[C]hildren are constitutionally different than adults for purposes of sentencing.”
• “[C]hildren have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.”
• “[C]hildren ‘are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; they have limited ‘control over their own environment’ and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”
• “[A] child’s character is not as ‘well formed’ as an adult’s; his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions less likely to be ‘evidence or irretrievable depravity.” (Montgomery v. Louisiana citing Roper, Graham, and Miller.)

For these reasons, a juvenile’s experience going through the court system is very different than an adult’s experience. In California we have a separate court for juveniles that follows different rules and procedures.
As a result of this recent decision by the Supreme Court, even if a juvenile is charged as an adult and goes through the adult system, the juvenile’s sentencing must take into consideration the specific characteristics of youth and the need to rehabilitate.
When a juvenile is facing allegations of violations of law, it is best to consult with an attorney that is knowledgeable about the intricacies of representing a minor.

At Hammerschmidt, attorney has focused a large part of her practice to advocating for juveniles. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding a juvenile’s rights, please feel free to contact our office.