Archive for May, 2010

Court: Sexually Dangerous Can Be Kept in Prison

Posted on May 17, 2010. Filed under: Courts, Crime, The Law |

New York Times
May 17, 2010
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Filed at 12:31 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered ”sexually dangerous” after their prison terms are complete.

The high court in a 7-2 judgment reversed a lower court decision that said Congress overstepped its authority in allowing indefinite detentions of considered ”sexually dangerous.”

”The statute is a ‘necessary and proper’ means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion.

President George W. Bush in 2006 signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which authorized the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates.

The act, named after the son of ”America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, was challenged by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement was supposed to end more than two years ago, but prison officials said there would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.

A fifth man who also was part of the legal challenge was charged with child sex abuse but declared incompetent to stand trial.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled last year that Congress overstepped its authority when it enacted a law allowing the government to hold indefinitely people who are considered ”sexually dangerous.”

But ”we conclude that the Constitution grants Congress legislative power sufficient to enact” this law, Breyer said.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan successfully argued the government’s case in front of the Supreme Court. Kagan has now been nominated to replace the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

Kagan in January compared the government’s power to commit sexual predators to its power to quarantine federal inmates whose sentences have expired but have a highly contagious and deadly disease.

”Would anybody say that the federal government would not have Article I power to effect that kind of public safety measure? And the exact same thing is true here. This is exactly what Congress is doing here,” she said.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s judgment, saying Congress can only pass laws that deal with the federal powers listed in the Constitution.

Nothing in the Constitution ”expressly delegates to Congress the power to enact a civil commitment regime for sexually dangerous persons, nor does any other provision in the Constitution vest Congress or the other branches of the federal government with such a power,” Thomas said.

Thomas was joined in part on his dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia.

Chief Justice John Roberts last year granted an administration request to block the release of up to 77 inmates at a federal prison in North Carolina. These were people whose prison terms for sex offenses were ending. The justice’s order was designed to allow time for the high court to consider the administration’s appeal.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act also establishes a national sex offender registry, increases punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections. Those provisions are not being challenged.

State laws allowing civil commitments of sex offenders also are unaffected.

The case is U.S. v. Comstock, 08-1224.

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Justices Bar Life Terms for Youths Who Haven’t Killed

Posted on May 17, 2010. Filed under: Courts, Crime, Politics |

New York Times
May 17, 2010

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Filed at 11:29 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has ruled that teenagers may not be locked up for life without chance of parole if they haven’t killed anyone.

By a 5-4 vote Monday, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.

”The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. ”This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.”

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with Kennedy and the court’s four liberal justices about Graham. But Roberts did not join the majority opinion as it applies to all young offenders who are locked up for crimes other than murder.

Life sentences with no chance of parole are rare and harsh for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of crimes less serious than killing, although roughly three dozen states allow for the possibility of such prison terms. Just over 100 prison inmates in the United States are serving those terms, according to data compiled by opponents of the sentences.

Those inmates are in Florida and seven other states — California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina — according to a Florida State University study. More than 2,000 other juveniles are serving life without parole for killing someone. Their sentences are not affected by Monday’s decision.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from Monday’s ruling.

Thomas criticized the majority for imposing ”its own sense of morality and retributive justice” on state lawmakers and voters who chose to give state judges the option of life-without-parole sentences.

”I am unwilling to assume that we, as members of this court, are any more capable of making such moral judgments than our fellow citizens,” Thomas said.

Kennedy, however, said that the high court ruling does not ensure anyone’s release. ”What the state must do, however, is give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy wrote the Supreme Court opinion in 2005 that ruled out the death penalty for people under 18, judging them less responsible than adults.

Monday’s decision is an extension of the rationale he used then.

An expert in sentencing law said the outcome is likely to pose challenges to judges and lawyers in cases of young offenders.

For example, are extremely long sentences of 35 years to 40 years that offer no chance at parole before release constitutional?

The court’s ”ruling likely will produce challenges for lawyers and lower courts to determine just whether and when other extreme prison terms are constitutionally problematic,” said Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman.

In November, the justices heard argument in two cases. The other involved Joe Sullivan, also of Florida, who was sent away for life for raping an elderly woman when he was 13. The court did not issue an opinion in Sullivan’s case, but he will benefit from the Graham ruling.

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