Monday, June 25, 2012

Last week of the Supreme Court's term.

A number of high profile decisions are expected from the Supreme Court this week as it concludes its 2011-2012 term.  I suspect Mr. Torvik and I will discuss some of them.  The first one that caught my eye is Miller v. Alabama, a 5-4 decision that says that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juveniles from being imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole.  The majority decision and dissents are here.  As will almost surely be the case in every 5-4 decision this week, Justice Kennedy is in the majority.  The decision actually involves two criminal defendants who committed heinous crimes when they were 14.  According to the majority opinion, the number of prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles is around 2500.
Maybe it is because I just listened to the "This American Life" episode about prisoners putting on Hamlet, but I have been thinking about the purpose of imprisoning people a lot lately.  If one views the purpose prison as rehabilitative, then offering 14-year-olds the opportunity to perhaps one day get out of prison encourages rehabilitation (as does, I assume, allowing prisoners to act in Hamlet).  If one views the purpose of prison as punitive, then offering 14-year-olds a chance to get out of prison (or act in Hamlet) serves no purpose.

Some people's first instinct is to note that 14 is very young and it seems somehow unfair to punish someone for 50, 60, 70 years for something they did in the eighth grade.  Others will note that letting a murderer live is showing more mercy to the murderer than the murderer did to their victim.  Still others will point to Leviticus as dictating that the "injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered." 

I suppose these dueling points of view relate to decisions about where one should place their empathy.  As the greatest movie of all time notes, killing a person takes everything the victim has and everything the victim would ever be.  On the other hand, the idea of being permanently punished for something one did as a child is unquestionably harsh.  The Supreme Court's decision tries to strike a balance between these two approaches within the context of what the Constitution allows (or, if you prefer the dissent, beyond the context of what the Constitution allows). 

The Supreme Court has given juveniles imprisoned for life a glimmer of hope that they will eventually be released.  Whether or not any of the reversed sentences actually leads to a juvenile being released is a different, and unanswered, question.  It will be interesting to see if in the coming years any of the 2500 prisoners who now have some possibility of release will ever actually get out of prison.  For some --or perhaps all--of the prisoners affected by today's decision, their victory may very well be a hollow one.


  1. Nice post. I guess I should see "Unforgiven" at some point.

    I also wanted to point out this: Justice Alito made a really bad error in his dissent in the case when he cited to the Roper v. Simmons case. His dissent argues that most "juvenile" murderers are actually 17 year olds, not 14 year olds. As an example, he points to "murderers like Donald Roper, who committed a brutal thrill-killing just nine months shy of his 18th birthday." Turns out that Donald Roper was the prison superintendent named as the nominal defendant in that habeas corpus case; the murderer was Christopher Simmons. Oops! (I suspect this will get corrected prior to formal publication, but here's the proof:

  2. this is a nice post, and I think "unforgiven" is definitely a great movie. "greatest" is always a stretch ...


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