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Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Life Sentences, Obama’s Elimination of Solitary Confinement for Youth Have Wide Implications for Black Juveniles

Group of Young MenIn the area of juvenile justice, the week has been pivotal in protecting the rights and humanity of young prisoners, with an important ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on life sentences, and a decision from the Obama administration on solitary confinement.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a previous decision it made to ban automatic life sentences without parole will be retroactive, which means that 2,100 prisoners convicted of murders as juveniles have the possibility of parole, as NPR reports.  The case involved Henry Montgomery, 69, a Black man who was sentenced to life without parole in 1963 — at the age of 17 — for the murder of a police officer outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Montgomery has been behind bars for over half a century.

In 2012 in Miller v. Alabama, the nation’s high court found that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.  The court also said that a “judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.”  Although that ruling obviously applied to all future cases, the issue of past cases had been unresolved.  This week, the court ruled that its decision should apply retroactively.  Writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the following:

Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison. Per­haps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy. In light of what this Court has said in Roper, Graham, and Miller about how children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability, however, prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, wrote a dissenting opinion:

How wonderful. Federal and (like it or not) state judges are henceforth to resolve the knotty “legal” question: whether a 17-year-old who murdered an innocent sheriff ’s deputy half a century ago was at the time of his trial “incorrigible.”… What silliness.

And Justice Thomas issued his own dissent, arguing that the decision by the majority of the court “lack[s] any constitutional foundation,” and “lacks any logical stopping point.”  He seems to care more about deciding on a case rather than whether it was decided justly and fairly:

Today’s decision repudiates established principles of finality. It finds no support in the Constitution’s text, and cannot be reconciled with our Nation’s tradition of considering the availability of postconviction remedies a matter about which the Constitution has nothing to say. I respectfully dissent.

The decision has broad implications for youth of color, as the sentence of juvenile life without parole, or JLWOP, is reserved mostly for Black youth.  In 2008, Human Rights Watch said that 60 percent of prisoners serving JLWOP are Black, almost all male.  And while Black juveniles are 17 percent of youth nationwide, they are 30 percent of those arrested and 62 percent of those tried as adults, according to Real Clear Policy.  Moreover, JLWOP is an exclusively American form of punishment found in no other nation on Earth, and it is repudiated by international human rights law.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court decision comes as President Obama announced an end to solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison, affecting some 10,000 prisoners.  In an op-ed in the Washington Post, the president made his case for ending the practice.  Obama mentioned the case of Kalief Browder, a Black teen who in 2010 was arrested at age 16 and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement in New York City’s Rikers Island jail.  He was released in 2013 without ever going to trial and committed suicide two years later at age 22.

President Obama noted that for Kalief, “life was a constant struggle to recover from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day.”

“Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time. Today, it’s increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem,” he added.

Obama also noted there are as many as 100,000 prisoners held in solitary in the U.S., including juveniles and those with mental illnesses.  And as many as 25,000 are serving months or years under these conditions, with no human contact, leading to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences” such as depression, alienation, withdrawal, violent behavior, a worsening of mental illness and an inability to interact with other people.

“Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses,” the president noted.

Insisting that solitary confinement should be limited and used only as a last resort, President Obama has made this decision as part of a broader move on criminal justice reform and addressing mass incarceration.

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