Supreme Court Hands Down Two Important Decisions Today

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

The Supreme Court has handed down two long-awaited decisions today; one ruling will not allow teens to serve life sentences without parole unless they have been convicted of murder; a second ruling allows federal officials to hold indefinitely inmates considered “sexually dangerous”, even after their prison terms are complete.

The Washington Post is reporting that in a 5-4 decision, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences for crimes other than murder must at least be considered for release.

The Supreme Court rendered this decision in the case of Terrance Graham who was convicted of armed robberies when he was 16 and 17 years old. Now 22, Graham is serving a life sentence without parole in Florida.

“The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. “This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.”

In a second ruling also handed down today, the Supreme Court ruled that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered “sexually dangerous” even after their prison terms are complete. This decision reverses a lower court ruling that said Congress overstepped its authority in allowing indefinite detentions of people considered “sexually dangerous.”

“The statute is a ‘necessary and proper’ means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned by who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others,” said Justice Stephen Breyer in the majority opinion.

The ruling came in a case involving four men who challenged the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 which authorizes the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates. The four men are serving prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. The men could have been released two years ago, but prison officials determined there was still a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.

The high court disagreed with the lower court ruling and decided that Congress did not overstep its authority when it passed the law in 2006 prohibiting the release of dangerous sex offenders.

“We conclude that the Constitution grants Congress legislative power sufficient to enact” this law, Breyer said.

Last year, Chief Justice John Roberts granted an administration request to block the release of up to 77 other dangerous inmates at a federal prison in North Carolina in order to give time to the high court to consider the case.
In addition to allowing states to indefinitely hold dangerous sex offenders, the Adam Walsh Act also established a national sex offender registry, increased punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthened child pornography protections.

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