From the Courts
Courts in Massachusetts and Michigan recently issued decisions declaring mandatory sentences of life without parole unconstitutional when applied to individuals 18 to 20 years of age (Massachusetts) and 18-year-olds (Michigan).
In Commonwealth v. Robinson and Commonwealth v. Mattis, Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Robert L. Ullmann stated: “On the record of brain science and social science in this case, the imposition of non-discretionary (i.e. mandatory) life-without-parole sentence for defendants who were age 18 through 20 at the time of their crimes constitutes[…] ‘cruel or unusual punishment’ in violation of article 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.”
Approximately nine years prior to this holding, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found automatic life without parole to be unconstitutional for young people under the age of 18—a decision closely aligned with the United States Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama where mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were found to be in contravention of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Like Massachusetts, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in People v. Parks that sentencing an 18- year-old convicted of first-degree murder to mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional. However, this ruling appears to affect only those who are 18 years of age at the time the crime was committed. According to the majority opinion, “[W]e conclude that the Michigan Constitution requires that 18-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder receive the same individualized sentencing procedure [citation omitted] as juveniles who have committed first-degree murder, instead of being subjected to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence like other older adults.” The majority cited “the attributes of youth that 18-year-olds share” in its holding.
Notably, both decisions underscore the growing body of research illuminating the distinct developmental needs of justice-involved young adults and the increasing interest in re-examining mandatory life without parole sentences for young people and emerging adults. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have eliminated juvenile life without parole while a handful of states have narrowed its application.
Learn more about juvenile life without parole laws and young adults in the justice system.
On the Fiscal Front: Restitution
A new report issued by the Juvenile Law Center examines the use of restitution in the juvenile justice system.
Key findings form the report include:
- Every state has laws authorizing restitution, but there is significant statutory variation between jurisdictions.
- In 35 states and three territories, young people can be incarcerated for not paying restitution.
- Several states do not cap restitution.
- In many states, insurance companies, government agencies and victim compensation fall under the definition of “victim” and therefore, can be entitled to restitution payments.
- Interest can be charged on unpaid restitution in 28 states and three territories.
- An increasing number of studies indicate that victims do not usually prioritize monetary restitution over the young person undergoing rehabilitation and taking responsibility for the offense.
- Some studies show that restitution often goes unpaid and if it is paid in full, it can take many years.
- Restitution ordered without considering the young person’s ability to pay can exacerbate obstacles to equal justice, specifically for individuals of color or the economically disadvantaged.
State in Focus: Hawaii
At the end of June 2022, Hawaii announced that it has zero girls in its youth correctional facility.
In 2014, the Hawaii legislature passed House Bill 2490. Informed by research conducted by the state’s juvenile justice working group, the bill cites analysis associating individuals who are placed in secure facilities for low-level offenses with a higher risk of recidivism. Moreover, the legislature found that the majority of Hawaii’s incarcerated youth were committed for nonviolent or misdemeanor offenses. With this data, the legislation aimed to focus secure bed space on juveniles found to have committed serious offenses while strengthening disposition, adjustment, diversion and services for individuals involved in non-violent or misdemeanor violations of the law.
As noted by the Washington Post, Hawaii has made “a systemwide effort to divert girls away from the judicial system and into trauma-based care programs.” Mark Patterson, administrator of the youth correctional facility, said, “What I’m trying to do is end the punitive model that we have so long used for our kids, and we replace it with a therapeutic model […] Do we really have to put a child in prison because she ran away? What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and be successful in the community?”
Hawaii is recognized as one of two states that has reached zero girls in detention facilities. Vermont closed its juvenile detention facility in 2020.
The Latest in Data: Youth Arrests
Data gathered by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention shows the number of arrests for all offense involving youth decreased 84% from 1996 to 2020. A breakdown of the 2020 data shows:
- Males accounted for 71% of arrests.
- White youth comprised 64% of arrests.
- Young people under the age of 15 and females each represented 29% of arrests.
- Property crime arrests dropped by 83% from 2008 to 2020.
- Arrests for violent crime was 1/3 the number in 2020 compared to 2006.
See juvenile arrest statistics from 2019
Juvenile Justice Publications and Resources
See the latest research and publications on juvenile justice policy.
This newsletter was created with support from and developed in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project (PSPP).