Juvenile Justice




Read the Synopsis and the two supplemental articles titled “5-4 Supreme Court Abolishes Juvenile Executions” and “Supreme Court restricts life without parole for juveniles”. Then answer the five questions at the end designed to test your legal reason and sensitivity to social issues.



In the United States there is sort of a dilemma about how to handle juvenile criminal defendants. In the eyes of the law they are viewed as juveniles and therefore not subject to the adult criminal justice system, technically speaking. However, increasingly juveniles are being tried as adults for their crimes. This requires a judgment call by the prosecution and a legal determination by a judge. Clearly, some juveniles deserve to be tried as an adult if they commit a very serious offense, but where do we draw the line? Should juvenile drug defendants also be charged as an adult or should this be restricted to violent crimes?


The United States Supreme Court has made several important decisions regarding juveniles in the criminal justice system in recent years. On March 2, 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the US Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for all offenders who committed their offense as a juvenile, no matter how serious and heinous their crimes. The court cited changing societal attitudes and remarkably even international sentiment when coming to its decision.


On May 18, 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court abolished life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders who did not kill anyone. The court determined that intrinsically juveniles are different that adults and have a chance to change themselves and should have the opportunity to someday prove that they are capable of reentering society if they have not taken a human life.


In both cases, in some way the US Supreme Court decided that such sentences against juveniles violated the “cruel and unusual” provision of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. These two cases were very controversial with proponents on both sides of the fence, some praising the actions of the court, while others decrying the decisions.


Supplemental Information on the Case Study (#1)


The Washington Post

Wednesday, March 2, 2005



By Charles Lane

5-4 Supreme Court Abolishes Juvenile Executions

The Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders yesterday, ruling 5 to 4 that it is unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death for a crime he or she committed while younger than 18.

In concluding that the death penalty for minors is cruel and unusual punishment, the court cited a “national consensus” against the practice, along with medical and social-science evidence that teenagers are too immature to be held accountable for their crimes to the same extent as adults.

Christopher Simmons, age 17 when he kidnapped and killed a woman, was spared along with 72 others. (AP)

The court said its judgment, which overturned a 1989 ruling that had upheld the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-old offenders, was also influenced by a desire to end the United States’ international isolation on the issue.

As of yesterday, 20 states, including Virginia, permitted the death penalty for offenders younger than 18. That is five fewer than allowed the practice in 1989.

“From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the opinion for the court.

“Our determination,” Kennedy added, “finds confirmation in the stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty.”

The ruling was the second time in three years the court had carved out a new categorical exception to the death penalty, having banned capital punishment for the moderately mentally retarded in 2002.

It came after 59 people were executed in 2004, the fewest since the Supreme Court permitted states to resume the death penalty in 1976. That decline is the result in part of lower murder rates and in part of events such as the exoneration of some death row inmates by DNA evidence.

Thus, the ruling showed that society’s reconsideration of capital punishment has penetrated the court, with the four liberal justices who joined Kennedy yesterday — John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer — pushing hardest to change capital punishment with the occasional help of either Kennedy or his fellow moderate conservative on the court, Sandra Day O’Connor.

O’Connor, who voted with the four death penalty skeptics and Kennedy in the 2002 case, dissented yesterday, along with the court’s conservatives, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

By striking down yesterday the death sentence a Missouri jury had imposed on Christopher Simmons — who was 17 on Sept. 8, 1993, when he broke into Shirley Crook’s house, kidnapped her and threw her, bound and gagged, into a river — the court also canceled the death sentences of 72 others for crimes they committed while younger than age 18.

One of those inmates, Shermaine A. Johnson, 26, had been awaiting execution in Virginia for a rape and murder he committed in 1994 at age 16. Virginia set a minimum death-penalty eligibility age at 16, but that is now unconstitutional. Maryland bars the death penalty for those younger than 18; there is no death penalty in the District.

By far the largest impact of yesterday’s ruling will be felt in Texas, where there are 29 juvenile offenders awaiting execution, and Alabama, where there are 14. No other state has more than five.

There have been 22 executions of juveniles since 1976, 13 of them in Texas.

Kennedy’s opinion rested in large part on the fact that 30 states, including the 12 states that have no capital punishment, forbid the death penalty for offenders younger than 18. That number represented an increase of five since the court upheld the juvenile death penalty in 1989.

The court weighs death penalty laws according to what a 1958 ruling called the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” and looks to state legislation and jury verdicts to decide whether a “national consensus” has developed against a previously accepted practice.

Christopher Simmons, age 17 when he kidnapped and killed a woman, was spared along with 72 others. (AP)

In 2002, the court voted 6 to 3 to strike down the death penalty for the moderately mentally retarded, which it had upheld 5 to 4 in 1989. In the 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, the court noted that the number of death penalty states banning that practice had grown from two in 1989 to 13 in 2002, while none had gone the other way.

The recent shift of states against the juvenile death penalty, though less dramatic than the evidence the court found sufficient in the mental-retardation case, was enough to carry the day, Kennedy concluded.

For the Supreme Court itself, perhaps the most significant effect of yesterday’s decision is to reaffirm the role of international law in constitutional interpretation.

The European Union, human right lawyers from the United Kingdom and a group of Nobel Peace laureates had urged the court in friend-of-the-court briefs to strike down the juvenile death penalty.

In saying that this strong expression of international sentiment “provide[s] respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions,” Kennedy lengthened the recent string of decisions in which the court has incorporated foreign views — and decisively rejected the arguments of those on the court, led by Scalia, who say it should consider U.S. law exclusively.

There were actually six votes in Kennedy’s favor on that point yesterday, because in her dissenting opinion O’Connor agreed with Kennedy that international trends affect the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment” in modern times.

O’Connor’s opinion suggested she came fairly close to joining the majority entirely. If she were a legislator, O’Connor wrote, “I, too, would be inclined to support legislation setting a minimum age of 18 in this context.”

But, O’Connor wrote, too few states had recently enacted such laws to convince her that the country generally had “set its face” against the juvenile death penalty.

Scalia, in a separate dissent joined by Rehnquist and Thomas, took the majority to task for “proclaim[ing] itself sole arbiter of our Nation’s moral standards — and in the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purport[ing] to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures.”

Noting that most countries have more restrictive abortion laws than the United States, Scalia accused the court of “invok[ing] alien law when it agrees with one’s own thinking, and ignor[ing] it otherwise.” He read his opinion from the bench, a sign of strong disapproval for the court’s decision.

Scalia also pointed out that the 18 death-penalty states that limit capital punishment to offenders 18 and older amount to 47 percent of the 38 death-penalty states.

“Words have no meaning if the views of less than 50 percent of death penalty States can constitute a national consensus,” he wrote.

For Kennedy, yesterday’s opinion appeared to represent a distance traveled since the 1989 case, in which he voted with Scalia to uphold the juvenile death penalty.

As recently as April 2003, the court — with Kennedy’s support — granted Oklahoma’s request to reinstate the death sentence of a 17-year-old offender after a federal appeals court had blocked it.

In 2002, the court refused to hear two appeals from younger-than-18 offenders asking it to reconsider their cases in light of Atkins. Again, Kennedy was in the majority.

Even at the Oct. 12 oral argument in the case decided yesterday, Kennedy said he was “very concerned” that gangs might use juveniles as “hit men” if there were no death penalty.

But yesterday’s packet of opinions contained a brief writing by Stevens, co-signed by Ginsburg, that patted Kennedy on the back for coming around to their point of view.\

If the “great lawyers” of the early republic were on the court today, Stevens wrote, “I would expect them to join Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the court.”

The case is Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633.

Supplemental Information on the Case Study (#2)

The Washington Post

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


By Robert Barnes

Supreme Court restricts life without parole for juveniles


Juveniles may not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for any crime short of homicide, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, expanding its command that young offenders must be treated differently from adults even for heinous crimes.

‘Sexually dangerous’ inmates can be kept in prison indefinitely

The court ruled 5 to 4 that denying juveniles who have not committed homicide a chance to ever rejoin society is counter to national and “global” consensus and violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision follows the court’s 2005 decision that, no matter what crime they commit, juveniles may not be executed. It also reinforced the court’s view that the Eighth Amendment’s protections against harsh punishment must be interpreted in light of the country’s “evolving standards of decency.”

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said states must provide juveniles who receive lengthy sentences a “meaningful” chance at some point to show they should be released.

“By denying the defendant the right to reenter the community, the state makes an irrevocable judgment about that person’s value and place in society,” Kennedy wrote. “This judgment is not appropriate in light of a juvenile nonhomicide offender’s capacity for change and limited moral culpability.”

The case involved Terrance Jamar Graham, who was convicted of robbery in Jacksonville, Fla., when he was 16. He received a short jail term and probation but was arrested again at 17 for taking part in a home invasion. The judge in the case sent him away for life.

Kennedy said there were 129 juveniles in 11 states, including Virginia, who had not committed homicides but were serving sentences of life without parole. The majority of them — 77 — are in Florida.

Kennedy was joined by the court’s liberal wing: Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined them in rejecting the outcome of Graham’s case, saying the sentence was so harsh as to be unconstitutional. But he did not agree with the majority’s broader pronouncement on life sentences, and said decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Some crimes are so heinous, and some juvenile offenders so highly culpable, that a sentence of life without parole may be entirely justified under the Constitution,” Roberts wrote.

Experts said that the decision will probably lead to years of litigation but that it represented an important move.

“It is indisputably the court’s most important non-capital Eighth Amendment decision,” said Douglas A. Berman, a law professor and criminal sentencing expert at Ohio State University. “It is the first highly tangible setting where the court’s death penalty work has crossed over” to another aspect of sentencing.


In recent years, a slim five-member majority of the court — with the retiring Stevens in the forefront — has both limited the death penalty and shielded juveniles. The court has said that capital punishment was reserved for those who take a life and that juveniles, no matter the crime, were not eligible for death because of their limited culpability. Monday’s decision was sought by juvenile justice advocates and child psychologists who said the natural extension was to prevent juveniles from being “sentenced to death in prison” without the possibility of release.

‘Sexually dangerous’ inmates can be kept in prison indefinitely

The decision did not forbid sentencing someone younger than 18 to life in prison; it only required the state “to provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.” Graham’s lawyer, Bryan S. Gowdy of Jacksonville, noted during oral arguments that a law could be constitutional even if it required 40 years to pass before the offender could ask for release.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a stinging dissent, making the now-familiar argument that interpreting the Eighth Amendment according to evolving societal standards is “entirely the court’s creation.”

He said the majority’s logic also fails. “The court is quite willing to accept that a 17-year-old who pulls the trigger on a firearm can demonstrate sufficient depravity and irredeemability to be denied reentry into society, but insists that a 17-year-old who rapes an 8-year-old and leaves her for dead does not,” Thomas wrote.


“The question of what acts are ‘deserving’ of what punishments is bound so tightly with questions of morality and social conditions as to make it, almost by definition, a question for legislative resolution,” he wrote.

His dissent was joined in full by Justice Antonin Scalia and in part by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Thomas and Kennedy sparred over what constitutes a national and international consensus. Thomas pointed out that 37 states, the federal government and a number of foreign countries keep life without parole as an option for juveniles.

But Kennedy noted that only a handful of states impose the penalty and that the United States is virtually alone in such sentences. “In continuing to impose life without parole sentences on juveniles who did not commit homicide, the United States adheres to a sentencing practice rejected the world over,” Kennedy wrote.

The court made no distinction in its decision in the age of the juvenile at the time of the crime. It did not rule on a separate case it had heard from Florida, concerning Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole for a rape he committed at 13.

Sullivan’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, said the case was probably dismissed because of procedural problems, but he said that Sullivan, like the others serving life terms, would now receive a chance to challenge his sentence.

More than 2,000 juveniles are serving life sentences for homicide. Stevenson acknowledged that the next legal front might include a challenge on their behalf, although he said some states, such as Texas, already are prohibiting life without parole sentences for all crimes committed by juveniles.

The case is Graham v. Florida.


Your answer to each question below should be about 1-2 pages long, typed single spaced. In answering the questions, present a fair and impersonal review of the issues based on good legal reasoning, sensitivity to societal issues, and careful research. Your answer should reflect research on your part – from library sources, government documents, your textbook, and/or the Internet.

Complete and accurate citations are expected for all works used in preparing the term paper. Use either the APA or MLA inline footnote style; do not use endnotes or footnotes. Failure to provide complete and accurate citations will result in a grade of “F” without the opportunity for rework.

Instructions on citing sources utilizing the APA (American Psychological Association) reference style can be found at http://www.apastyle.org/ or a comparable website.

Instructions on citing sources utilizing the MLA (Modern Language Association) reference style can be found at http://www.mla.org/ or a comparable website.

Pages beyond page 10 will neither be read nor graded.

  1. Do you believe there is a growing common consensus that juveniles are somehow less culpable for their crimes since they have not been in this world as long as an adult or do you believe that there is growing common consensus that juveniles are just as guilty as an adult when they make a conscious decision to commit a crime? Explain.
  2. Is it somehow hypocritical to not allow juveniles to marry, sign contracts, fight in a war, or have a consensual relationship with an adult, but allow them to be tried as an adult for a crime they commit? Does a juvenile offender somehow give up their rights as a juvenile when they commit a certain type of crime? Explain.
  3. Do you believe that executing someone who committed their crime as a juvenile is a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments? Why or why not. Do you believe that a life term with no parole against someone who committed a non-murder crime as a juvenile is a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments? Why or why not. Should this determination be left up to the trial court when weighing the evidence and specific circumstances and elements of the crime committed?
  4. In coming to its decision about not allowing executions for juveniles the US Supreme Court cited “international sentiment” in deciding to restrict this ultimate form of punishment to only adults. Should the United States Supreme Court follow the law of the United States and the opinions of United States citizens exclusively when coming to a decision about a case or should they also take into consideration internationally recognized standards and sentiment? Explain.
  5. What crimes, if committed, should allow for a juvenile defendant to be tried as an adult? Are juveniles tried as adults too often or rather too infrequently? Make a case for trying juveniles more often as adults. Alternatively, make a separate case for not allowing as many juveniles to be tried adults.