Seek Justice

A weekly deep dive into Criminal Justice with Erik Rasmussen and Dennis Schrantz

Ep. 19 - Bernie Sanders' Criminal Justice Reform Promises - Part 2


For most of our history as a country, the United States incarcerated people at about the same rates as other western democracies do today. In the early 1970s we had the same low crime rate as today, but we now have an incarceration rate five times higher. Indeed, America is now the world’s leading jailer. We lock up more than 2 million people in America, which is more of our own people than any country on Earth. And that does not include another 5 million people who are under the supervision of the correctional system.

Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people in America have not been convicted of a crime and are solely in jail because they can’t afford their bail. We are criminalizing poverty.

Thousands of juveniles are currently confined with adults in detention and correctional facilities throughout the United States. Juveniles confined in adult facilities face grave dangers to their safety and well-being, including significantly higher rates of physical assault, sexual abuse, and suicide than their counterparts in juvenile facilities. These dangers and other conditions of juvenile confinement with adults give rise to concerns of constitutional dimension. In its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, the United States Supreme Court has created categorical rules prohibiting the imposition of certain punishments on entire categories of offenders as cruel and unusual punishment. The Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, in which it held that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment when applied to juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses, and its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, in which it held that mandatory life-without-parole sentencing schemes violate the Eighth Amendment when applied to juveniles, open the door to challenge the constitutionality of the confinement of juveniles with adults.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

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.

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.

While every state (and territory) sets a maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction (in most states it is 18), in about two thirds of the states (and territories), there is no statute that specifies a minimum age under which a child cannot be adjudicated delinquent.

In those states without a statutory minimum, there is nothing legally preventing the state from prosecuting even the youngest of children. This runs contrary to all of the scientific research and emerging case law that recognizes children are inherently less culpable than adults and that the younger a person, the less competent he or she may be.

The Criminalization of Childhood

A study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2014 found that, in New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina, felons favored the Democratic Party. In New York, some 62 percent were registered Democrats, compared to 9 percent who registered Republican; in New Mexico, 52 percent were Democrats, while about 10 percent were Republicans; and about 54 percent were Democrats in North Carolina, compared to the roughly 10 percent who were Republicans.

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