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Twenty-Five to Life for Adolescent Mistakes: Juvenile Strikes as Cruel and Unusual Punishment


Beth Caldwell


Southwestern Law School

2012

University of San Francisco Law Review, Vol. 46, No. 3, 2012

Abstract:     
Thirty-one jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia and the federal government) have passed legislation that follows a “three strikes and you’re out” model, imposing mandatory lengthy or life sentences for “habitual” or “repeat” offenders previously convicted of a specified number and type of crimes. These laws vary widely from state to state, and California’s three strikes law is one of the harshest in the country. Notably, California is the only state in the nation that defines juvenile court adjudications as prior convictions under its three strikes law.

The constitutionality of California’s policy of using juvenile adjudications as prior convictions for sentencing enhancement under its three strikes law was challenged in 2010 on due process grounds because the accused do not have a right to a jury trial in juvenile court. However, the California Supreme Court held that the lack of jury trials in juvenile courts does not preclude the use of juvenile adjudications as prior convictions under the three strikes law. Similarly, legal scholarship has focused on the potential due process violations raised by California’s use of juvenile adjudications as strike priors in the absence of jury trials.This Article examines the use of “juvenile strikes” through a different lens. Rather than focus on the violation of due process rights, this Article argues that using crimes committed by juveniles as prior convictions to enhance sentences under three strikes statutes constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, according to the analytical framework set forth by the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida.

Part I provides an overview of three strikes laws, including the basics of California’s law. This Part also reviews the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence on punishments imposed under habitual offender sentencing statutes, including California’s. Part II summarizes California’s law regarding juvenile strikes and reviews the two California Supreme Court cases that have upheld the legality of juvenile strikes. Part III discusses the Graham v. Florida decision, setting forth the analytical framework employed in that case. Part IV considers the ways in which Graham has been interpreted and applied by lower courts since 2010. Part V argues that the Graham framework should be used to analyze the constitutionality of juvenile strike cases. Finally, Part VI uses the analytical framework of Graham to show that the use of juvenile strikes to enhance sentences under California’s three strikes law constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. This is the heart of the analysis and incorporates extensive comparative research on three strikes laws of other states and countries. The Article concludes that using juvenile cases to enhance sentences under California’s three strikes law violates the Eighth Amendment because it is inconsistent with both the practices of other states and the principles of adolescent development that the Supreme Court relied on in Graham.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 74

Keywords: three strikes, juvenile, cruel and unusual punishment

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Date posted: July 8, 2012  

Suggested Citation

Caldwell, Beth, Twenty-Five to Life for Adolescent Mistakes: Juvenile Strikes as Cruel and Unusual Punishment (2012). University of San Francisco Law Review, Vol. 46, No. 3, 2012. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2101751

Contact Information

Beth Caldwell (Contact Author)
Southwestern Law School ( email )
3050 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
United States
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