Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Supreme Court Goes Stupid

Yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless they’ve killed someone (they ruled out the death penalty for teens in 2005). To some, this might sound like a good distinction, but it’s not. By focusing on the outcome of the crime rather than the actions undertaken, the Court has created an illogical, arbitrary and nonsensical law. Consider this. . .

Actions and Intent Should Matter, Not Outcomes
The Supreme Court’s new ruling focuses on the outcome of the crime, as courts must now look to whether or not the teenager killed someone. This is ridiculous. Under the law, taking an action has always been enough to receive the maximum punishment for the crime without any consideration as to the outcome. Thus, the punishment doesn’t change depending on how successful the criminal was, e.g. if you break into a bank, you are charged with bank robbery whether you get away with anything or not. But the Supreme Court’s new ruling turns this on its head and the result is arbitrary.

Assume that you have two teenagers, both age 17. Teenager A pulls out a gun and shoots another person. Teenager B does the same. Both empty the clip with the intent of killing the person they are shooting at. The person shot by Teenager A dies. The person shot by Teenager B does not die. Under the Supreme Court’s new ruling, Teenager A can be locked up for life, whereas Teenager B can not. Does that make sense? Both had the same intent. Both took the same actions. Teenager B is merely lucky that the person did not die. Distinctions like this are arbitrary and discredit the law.

Moreover, intent has always mattered under the law. Indeed, there are defenses like self defense that are entirely based on intent. Similarly, the law often enhances the punishment level where the criminal’s intent was evil. Yet, the Supreme Court’s new ruling ignores intent and looks only to the outcome and age of the criminal, and consequently, the Court reaches a bizarre result.

Let’s change the scenario from above. Teenager A pulls out a gun and shoots someone. The case is arguably self defense, but the jury doesn’t buy it. Teenager A can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Meanwhile, Teenager B kidnaps, rapes and tortures a child. Teenager B then shoots the child and leaves the child to die. But the child does not die. The child is, instead, left paralyzed, in permanent pain and mentally disabled. Teenager B cannot be sentenced to life in prison. Does that make sense? Under what standard can we consider Teenager A to be a greater danger to society or more depraved that Teenager B?
Age Is An Artificial Distinction
Finally, drawing a line between the ages of 17 and 18 is an arbitrary and senseless distinction. Eighteen was chosen as the age of majority eons ago for the sole purpose of creating clear lines in the law. Below that age, you had no legal rights. Beyond that age, you did. The reason 18 was chosen (it used to be 21) was that it was assumed that 18 (21) was the age where you finally matured into an adult and that you could understand your actions. But there is nothing magical about the age of 18, nor is 18 even the age of majority in all countries; in some countries it is as low as 14. Thus, there is no logical reason for picking 18.

Once again, assume two teenagers. Teenager A turned 18 years old today. Teenager B is 17 years and 364 days old. They commit the same crime, together. Teenager A can be sentenced to life in jail with no parole. Teenager B cannot. What possible difference can that one day make? Shouldn’t the Court be concerned with determining whether or not the teenagers were aware of the consequences of their actions? That’s the supposed reason they drew the cutoff at 18 in the first place. So why draw the distinction using some arbitrary date set a thousand years ago rather than having teenage defendants examined to determine their competence?
This is the problem with weak reasoning. When a court looks at a case and abandons intellectual rigor to reach a particular result, it thinks it’s being fair and decent. But what it really is doing is making the system less fair and more arbitrary. This ruling creates a system where the truly twisted can escape justice because of the date of their birth, while less depraved others face greater punishments.

It will only be a matter of time before you see your first 60 Minutes show about some poor murdering teen who is in jail for life when other teens who tortured and maimed their victims are roaming free. When that liberal 60 Minutes anchor turns to the screen and asks you “how can we let such an unfair system exist,” look them straight in the eye and tell them “because a group of liberal judges wanted to make the system more fair, and this is what their illogic wrought.”


Patti said...

deviants under the age of 18 just took note. sickening...

Writer X said...

"Fair" never looked so unfair.

LL said...

If you have the opinions, could you either post them or give us a place to read them? I'd like to see what sort of screwed up reasoning they're using.

I'd also like to see what the "wise Latina" had to say.

Tennessee Jed said...

While I don't disagree with your bottom line, the premises do provoke thought.

1) actions and intent matter, not outcomes. Clearly this principle has been a foundation of our law through the differentiation between 1st degree murder and other forms of homicide such as manslaughter. On the other hand, one has to at least consider differentiating based on outcome. Obviously you can't charge somebody with capital murder if the person is not dead. Maybe the key is to make certain punishments available for attempted homicide are the same as actual homicide with all the various distinctions (1st degree, second degree, manslaughter, etc.) applying equally to both crimes.

While the distinction between 17 and 18 may seem arbitrary, I seem to recall there is a legal definition about something called "the age of reason" or similat term. This may be 12 or 13 or some other age. It has some validity, otherwise how can we justify not permitting 8 year olds to vote. Maybe the issue is apply theage of reason principle to the law and make it the break point for where the same crime is treated differently due to age.

It will be interesting to see what the dissent has to say.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, Having dealt with criminals in my practice, I can assure you that they do know these things and they know how to exploit them. Gangs have already been shifting their work to younger members so that they would be sentenced as juveniles. Look for them to now have their younger members do all of the most brutal work as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, This is certainly not fair to the victim, and you'll see that soon enough liberals will start complaining about how "unfair" our system is to certain killer teens. This is like "make-whine" for liberals.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, Here's the ruling:

Graham v. Florida

The Justice Thomas' dissent is particularly stinging and well reasoned. . . as always.

Sotomayor joined the majority and didn't write a separate opinion.

USArtguy said...

Can congress (well a future congress that might approach something of integrity) craft legislation to, in effect, null this decision?

There may be some legal distinction about the age of reason, but the law has usually looked at circumstance and intention. Occasionally kids are tried as adults. For example, someone younger than 18 but who is 6'2" and 240 pounds should have those facts considered in a case of, say, assault and battery.

Also, the other SC decision I disagree with is holding people beyond their sentence. Once anyone's "debt to society" is paid they should be freed. If they "deserve" more time in prison, then that should be meted out at the judgement, not at the last minute of what's supposed to be the end of their punishment.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You deal with "attempt" and "outcome" by making different crimes. That's why they have murder and attempted murder and why larceny (theft) is distinguished according to how much was taken. But once you perform all of the necessary elements of a crime, then you are subject to the full punishment for that crime no matter how "well" you did in pulling it off.

In terms of drawing the distinction at 18, they did draw the distinction at 18 (and 21 before that). But courts have over the past several decades switched over to a system that requires the court to decide if the juvenile has the level of maturity to stand trial as an adult because the law has begun to recognize that even 14 and 15 years olds can be fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

The dissent, particularly Judge Thomas's dissent, is unusually blistering.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, I disagree with that one too. I don't want these people on the street either, but the law is the law and we should not be deciding, "well, we don't like you, so we're going to ignore the law in your case." They should instead, make the law tougher. Why were they sentenced in such a way that they can get out if they remain dangerous?

In terms of Congress changing the law, that's not as clear as it seems. Congress can always make law and thus has the power to change any law and to basically force an interpretation upon the Court. BUT this decision was based on the Eighth Amendment. It has never been truly decided if the Congress can overrule a ruling of the Supreme Court on an interpretation of the Constitution. That would be one of those historic moments if it happened and I'm honestly have no idea what the outcome would be.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: More erosion of personal responsibility. I'm a big fan of the M'Naghten Rule. At the time of the commission of the crime, did the defendant have the requisite mental state to know what he did, and does he know the difference between right and wrong? It is simply wrong to assume that a 14 or 15 year old couldn't fit into that rule. I would only go so far as to set an age limit on when a deep evaluation of the defendant becomes automatically necessary (say, for instance, age 17 or younger). But now we have another one of those rigid distinctions that frees an entire segment of the population from the ultimate penalty for its actions.

Although it frequently seems to be otherwise, youth is neither a form of insanity nor a form of mental retardation. Each case should stand on its own merits. That simple logic has now been tossed out the legal window by the Supreme Court.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree. I think M'Naghten is the right rule and should remain the rule. Creating an artificial distinction that doesn't really get at the issue -- is the person "culpable" makes no sense and just creates bad incentives and unfair results.

I would have no problem requiring an automatic examination for anyone below 17 or even 18. I just think that drawning the line there automatically makes no sense.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I agree. And I guess I should have gone a bit farther. My suggestion of a full evaluation should be a matter for the individual states to determine, since "adulthood" for most purposes (such as the legal drinking age) is set by the states. Either way, I still think the Supreme Court just nosed into matters beyond the Constitution and outside of realistic logic. Law is constantly being eroded in favor of psychobabble.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I concur. This was a bad decision and should have been left up to states if they thought the way juveniles were treated was unfair.

Joel Farnham said...

Being a teenage criminal has never been so good.

I know that this should not have even gotten close to the Supreme Court. Since when did cruel and unusual punishment extend to life in prison?

At times, I think the Liberals of this world prefer the criminals to be out on the street killing citizens.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, There are liberals who really think that the fact that we try to catch criminals creates crime. It's ridiculous.

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