WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court took two cracks at one of the law’s thorniest questions Monday: When can you lock up a prisoner and throw away the key?
Not when it’s a teenager who hasn’t killed anyone, the justices said. But when it’s a “sexually dangerous” inmate, maybe so, even if the offender has completed a federal prison sentence.
By a 5-4 vote, the court said young people serving life prison terms must have “a meaningful opportunity to obtain release” if they haven’t killed their victims. The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy extended the “children are different” rationale that drove his decision five years ago outlawing the death penalty for killers under 18.
The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 23, is in prison in Florida, which holds 60 percent of juvenile defendants who are locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.
“The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. “This, the Eighth Amendment does not permit.”
In a second case, the court voted 7-2 to uphold a federal law that allows for the indefinite imprisonment of inmates considered mentally ill and “sexually dangerous,” no matter that their sentences have been served.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan successfully argued the government’s case in front of the Supreme Court in January. Kagan has now been nominated to replace the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
Kagan compared the government’s power to commit sexual predators to its power to quarantine a federal inmate whose sentence has expired but who has a highly contagious and deadly disease.
The decision is in keeping with previous high court cases that have upheld state civil commitment laws for sexual predators. States hold the vast majority of sex offenders who are in prison.
In both cases, the court’s liberal justices held sway and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were in dissent.
Life sentences with no chance of parole are rare for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of crimes less serious than killing, although roughly three dozen states allow for the possibility of such prison terms. Kennedy said 129 inmates in the United States are serving such terms.
More than 2,000 other juveniles are serving life without parole for killing someone. Their sentences are not affected by Monday’s decision.
The court’s “ruling likely will produce challenges for lawyers and lower courts to determine just whether and when other extreme prison terms are constitutionally problematic,” said Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman.
In Monday’s sex offender case, the court said the federal civil commitment law is appropriate for maintaining “the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others.”
Lower federal courts held that Congress overstepped its authority when it enacted a law allowing the government to hold indefinitely people who are considered “sexually dangerous.”
But “we conclude that the Constitution grants Congress legislative power sufficient to enact” this law, Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion.
The law has been invoked for roughly 100 federal prisoners. Authorities must persuade a federal judge that continued imprisonment is necessary and also must try to transfer prisoners to state control.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s judgment, saying Congress can only pass laws that deal with the federal powers listed in the Constitution.
Nothing in the Constitution “expressly delegates to Congress the power to enact a civil commitment regime for sexually dangerous persons, nor does any other provision in the Constitution vest Congress or the other branches of the federal government with such a power,” Thomas said.
Thomas was joined in part on his dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia.
Chief Justice John Roberts last year granted an administration request to block the release of up to 77 inmates at a federal prison in North Carolina. These were people whose prison terms for sex offenses were ending. The justice’s order was designed to allow time for the high court to consider the administration’s appeal.
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act also establishes a national sex offender registry, increases punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections. Those provisions are not being challenged.
State laws allowing civil commitments of sex offenders also are unaffected. Washington’s civil commitment law was used in 2008 to commit Kevin Coe, who was convicted of rape in Spokane in 1981.