Photo by James Duncan Davidson, via Wikimedia Commons
A New York University law professor who persuaded the Supreme Court to extend its ban on mandatory sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles to young people convicted of murder—and thereby dramatically transformed the landscape of juvenile justice—is The Crime Report’s choice for Criminal Justice Person of the Year in 2012.
Bryan Stevenson, 53, founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, has devoted his legal career to securing fair treatment for some of the most unsympathetic offenders in the U.S. criminal justice system.
When he took the case of Evan Miller, a 14-year-old Alabaman convicted of murder for his part in setting a 2003 trailer fire that led to the death of Cole Cannon—a neighbor of Miller’s—few legal experts gave him a chance of success. The boy, along with another young accomplice, had robbed and beaten Cannon before setting the trailer fire that killed him.
Stevenson argued that the mandatory sentencing of Miller to life in prison without the possibility of parole—even for murder—violated Eighth Amendment prohibitions against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
He built his case on the precedent set by a 2010 Supreme Court decision in Graham v Florida, which held that LWOP sentences for juveniles for crimes other than murder were unconstitutional.
That ruling, significantly, cited an argument that Stevenson had made in a similar case argued the same day that the differences in maturity and sense of responsibility between adolescent and adult offenders required different judicial treatment.
On June 24, the Court agreed, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, to extend the 2010 decision to include youths under 18 convicted of murder, noting that the severity of the crime should not affect sentencing.
The Miller case was presented to the court with another case, Jackson v Hobbs, in which a 14-year-old named Kuntrell Jackson, convicted of murder for his part in the armed robbery of an Arkansas video store that left a store clerk dead, similarly appealed his LWOP sentence.
Although the ruling made clear that judges could still sentence young offenders to life terms, it effectively rendered null and void legislative statutes that required them to do so.
“The sentencers must be able to consider the mitigating qualities of youth,” said Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority.
“By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes…mandatory sentencing schemes violate the principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”
With that crisp statement, decades of jurisprudence that condemned thousands of individuals, many of them poor or persons of color, to spending the rest of their lives in prison for serious crimes committed when they were juveniles, were relegated to dusty legal history.
But the impact of Miller v Alabama is likely to be even more far-reaching.
As Stevenson put it in an interview with The Crime Report and other media shortly after the verdict: “The Court has made an incredibly important step forward in recognizing what I think has been one of the great tragedies in American criminal justice.”
Although the immediate impact on the estimated 2,100 individuals currently serving LWOP terms for crimes committed as juveniles is unclear, the landmark decision provided momentum to the growing movement to reform the nation’s juvenile justice system.
It has reinforced and strengthened nationwide efforts to make “mitigating circumstances”—such as a youth’s lack of maturity, brain development, early history—a factor in determining the treatment of troubled youth who are often shuttled into adult prisons or juvenile detention facilities that are little more than holding pens, and end up in a cycle of prison and crime.
Stevenson’s work has often raised hackles among critics who maintain that those guilty of heinous crimes deserve severe punishment regardless of their age.
But Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate who has won countless awards for his work defending poor inmates and people of color, including death row inmates, has not tried to excuse the crimes committed by his clients.
When he was 16, his own grandfather was murdered by a group of juveniles in a low-income project in south Philadelphia.
But as he pointed out in a recent Washington Post interview, the U.S. has been better at exacting “extreme punishments” than in developing a “new society where there’s going to be less crime because we’re doing something constructive to help people who are at risk or hopeless or marginalized.”
Children are the lynchpins of building such a society, he added.
“We protect children under the law except in the criminal justice system,” he told The Post. “I believe that to say to any child that you’re only fit to die in prison is ‘cruel.’
“It’s true that some of these crimes are very disturbing, but it’s also true that the lives that many of these children have lived are also disturbing…we owe them more than to simply throw them away.”
Although Stevenson grew up in racially segregated rural Alabama, and still remembers his parents not taking him to certain places so they would not be humiliated because of their color, his legal activism extends beyond questions of racial justice to the economic inequalities of contemporary America.
“I actually think the biggest factor that shapes the outcomes in the criminal justice system is not race but wealth,” he said in another interview with al.com, an Alabama blog. “What I tell my students all the time is that our system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”
For his high-impact legal victory this year, as well as for his stubborn championship of “equal justice” that has strengthened the work of both activists and practitioners in 2012 who are reforming the nation’s justice system, Stevenson has fully earned The Crime Report’s designation of “Person of the Year.”
We also are proud to recognize some others who have made a significant difference in 2012.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, has been a singular force in police reforms throughout the nation. Most notably this year, he filed a contested lawsuit against controversial Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joseph Arpaio to stop alleged unconstitutional law enforcement practices against Latino immigrants, the outgrowth of a long investigation.
He also concluded or launched similar DOJ actions against law enforcement authorities in Seattle; East Haven, CT; Albuquerque; and other cities. Many of the cases arose from allegations of discrimination, unlawful use of force, or other examples of police misconduct. “The police are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not divide them,” Perez said in announcing the DOJ’s action in Arizona.
Over the past two years, Perez has led 19 investigations of local police departments, which some sources say is the most in the division’s history—often facing considerable hostility. As a result, notes TCR’s Washington contributing editor Ted Gest, he has “revitalized the Justice Department’s civil rights division.”
Attorney Michael Romano and Prof. Larry Marshall, founders of Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project were the driving forces behind California’s successful ballot initiative this year which limited the scope of the state’s “Three Strikes law.
The initiative, which was also recognized as one of our “Top Ten” criminal justice stories of the year, effectively brought a law that was regarded as the toughest of the nation’s mandatory-minimum sentencing statutes into line with both research and practice which demonstrated it had little impact on public safety.
The project utilized the efforts of law students to defend clients who were sentenced to life in prison for ‘third’ offenses as minor as stealing one dollar in loose change from a parked car or attempting to break into a soup kitchen.
But just as impressively, the project spent years quietly amassing case records and data aimed at changing the public debate. The two men, assisted by their Stanford students, were instrumental in developing the language of the initiative and spearheading the long campaign to place it on the state ballot.
Stephen Handelman is Executive Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.