Friday, April 13th, 2018

Miller Round-Up

The Second Circuit issued no criminal opinions or notable summary orders this week. This silence provides the occasion to flag two recent decisions outside the Circuit about the scope of Miller v. Alabama (2012) (requiring individualized sentencing consideration before sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole, and holding that this punishment may be imposed only on “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption”).

First, Judge Hall of the District of Connecticut extended Miller’s holding to 18 year-old offenders. The decision in Cruz v. United States, granting a successive 2255 petition, is available here. Judge Hall’s opinion in Cruz identifies national policy and scientific consensuses that disfavor mandatory life without parole (LWOP) for 18 year-olds.  With respect to the policy consensus, Judge Hall looked beyond the number of states that forbid LWOP for 18 year-olds to consider the actual frequency with which this punishment is imposed. As to frequency, Judge Hall cited a 2017 Sentencing Commission publication showing that only one 18 year-old offender received a life sentence in the federal system between the (fiscal) years 2010 and 2015. In finding there is a scientific consensus against imposing LWOP on 18 year-olds , the judge relied on evidence including the testimony of defense expert Dr. Laurence Stenberg concerning the cognitive development of people in their late adolescence.

Second, the Third Circuit held that Miller v. Alabama forbids the imposition of de facto life sentences in the absence of individualized sentencing consideration. (The decision contributes to a circuit split on this question, which the Second Circuit has not yet considered). The opinion in United States v. Grant, authored by Judge Greenaway, is available here. The defendant in Grant had been resentenced, post-Miller, to 65 years imprisonment. This would have made the defendant eligible for release when he was 72 years old — the same age as his life expectancy. But Miller, the court reasoned, accords “non-incorrigible juvenile offenders a right to a meaningful opportunity for release.” Slip op. at 4. Accordingly, under Miller, the “Eighth Amendment prohibits a term-of-years-sentence for the duration of a juvenile offender’s life-expectancy . . . when the defendant’s ‘crimes reflect transient immaturity [and not] . . . irreparable corruption.'” Id. at 4 (quoting Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 734 (2016)). In practical terms, this requires sentencing judges to conduct an “individualized evidentiary hearing to determine [a] non-incorribile juvenile homicide offender’s life expectancy before sentencing him or her to a term-of-years sentence that runs the risk of meeting or exceeding his or her mortality.” Id. at 35. Moreover, “a juvenile offender that is found to be capable of reform should presumptively be afforded an opportunity for release at some point before the age of retirement,” which is commonly accepted to be 65 years old. Id. at 37. A sentencing judge must consider these factors–life expectancy and the age of retirement–in addition to the § 3553(a) factors when sentencing juvenile offenders who are found to be capable of reform. See id. at 38.

Thanks to Sentencing Resource Counsel Sissy Phleger for alerting us to these opinions.

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