In Sharper Focus: The U.S. Supreme Court has been saying Juveniles Really Are Different

The case of In re M.W., 2011-0215, argued on December 6, raised once again the argument that when it comes to crime and punishment,  juveniles are different from adults.  Here are a trio of recent U.S.Surpeme Court decisions on this point, all cited in M.W.’s brief.  

In 2005, in  Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty could not be imposed for a crime committed as a juvenile.  The high court underscored three distinct differences between juveniles and adults that make juveniles less culpable.  These differences are “a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, increased vulnerability and susceptibly to negative influences and out­side pressures, including peer pressure,” and character that simply is not yet formed.  

 In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, 130 U.S. 2011 the Court held that it was an Eighth Amendment violation to impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile offender in a non-homicide case.  Again writing for the majority as he had done in Roper, Justice Kennedy noted that ”it remains true that “[f]rom 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.” Kennedy noted that none of the legitimate goals of penal sanctions—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, provides an adequate justification for such a sentence for a juvenile.  A juvenile in this circumstance must be given a meaningful chance to obtain release, based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

 In 2011 in J.D.B v. North Carolina, 131 S.Ct. 2394 a thirteen year old questioned in a closed room at his school by a uniformed police officer confessed to several robberies.  He was not allowed to speak with his grandmother, and he was not mirandized.  His public defender moved for the suppression of statements made during the course of the questioning at school because they were part of a custodial interrogation and he was not given Miranda warnings. The North Carolina courts all held J.D.B was not in custody when he confessed and that his statements were admissible.  While acknowledging that the question of whether a person is in custody is an objective test, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a child’s age is relevant in deciding that issue. “ A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go.” wrote Justice Sotomayor, for the majority. “[O]ur history is replete with laws and judicial recognition” that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults.”  As long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, the child’s age forms a part of the custody calculus.




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