Tuesday, July 09, 2019

U.S. v. Briones (9th Cir. - July 9, 2019)

I hadn't thought about this.

I've read a ton of cases about LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) sentences for juvenile offenders in state court.  You generally can't do that; only in the rarest of cases is it permissible, in part because youthful offenders have a real possibility of change.  So you've got to at least hold out the prospect of release if they do.

Makes sense.  But what I hadn't thought about are life sentences in federal court.  Because, there, we got rid of parole.  So any life sentence is, by definition, an LWOP.

I'm sure others in the field know about this issue in some detail.  Just not me.

Today, an en banc panel votes 9-2 that the LWOP sentence for a 17-year old kid who participated in a robbery that resulted in a murder was unconstitutional.  Significantly, even the government admitted that the defendant had been a "model inmate" during the nearly two decades he'd been in prison for this offense, with not even a single disciplinary infraction.  That goes a long way to demonstrating that someone can indeed change.

Mind you, we only have that information because the whole LWOP jurisprudence is new, and so this is a habeas case.  For new juvenile offenders, we've got to guess whether or not they're going to be a model inmate.  And if we guess wrong -- if we think they won't change, but they in fact do -- there's nothing the inmate can do about it.  They're still in prison for life, since we don't have parole on the federal side.  Even if they end up even more reformed than Mr. Briones here.

Which makes me think that it might make sense to reintroduce parole on the federal side, at least for juvenile offenders.  Because after 20 or 30 years in prison, doesn't it make some sense to see whether the inmate has sufficiently turned his life around to be released?

Anyway, LWOP in the federal system.  In which there's no P.  A difficult problem.