Jurist reports today that the ACLU is suing Michigan over life sentences for juveniles, alleging that such measures constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against the Governor of Michigan, the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Chair of the Michigan Parole Board.
According to the ACLU press release,
The lawsuit charges that a Michigan sentencing scheme that denies the now-adult plaintiffs an opportunity for parole and a fair hearing to demonstrate their growth, maturity and rehabilitation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates their constitutional rights.
The ACLU highlights that Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole: ‘Judges and juries are not allowed to take into account the fact that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.’
This lawsuit, Hill et al. v. Granholm, comes just over 6 months after the US Supreme Court ruled in Graham v Florida upon whether it is constitutionally permissible for juveniles to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for committing non-homicide offenses.
In finding a violation of the Eighth Amendment in Graham v Florida, the Supreme Court concluded that ‘[t]he Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term’.
This ruling followed on the heels of Roper v Simmons, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.
Notably, both Roper v Simmons and Graham v Florida saw the Court opinion make reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in its decision-making. This is unusual given the Court’s general reluctance to refer to international law – and particularly international law that is not binding on the US. (The US and Somalia are the only two countries not to have ratified the CRC).
The death penalty and a life sentence without parole for any offence are explicitly prohibited under article 37 (a) of CRC. (For more see the Committee on the Rights of the Child‘s General Comment No.10 on Children’s Rights in Juvenile Justice (2007), paras 75-77).
In delivering the majority Court opinion in Roper v Simmons, Justice Kennedy stated that,
It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime … The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.
In Graham v Florida, the Court (again per Justice Kennedy) stated that:
The Court has treated the laws and practices of other nations and international agreements [including the CRC] as relevant to the Eighth Amendment not because those norms are binding or con-trolling but because the judgment of the world’s nations that a particular sentencing practice is inconsistent with basic principles of decency demonstrates that the Court’s rationale has respected reasoning to support it.
The Roper, Graham and Hill lawsuits are reflective of, and contribute to, growing advocacy efforts in the area of juvenile justice in the US. It is to be hoped that, should this most recent case reach that body, the Supreme Court will demonstrate the same progressiveness and awareness of the implications for children of human rights violating punishments that it did in Roper and Graham.