An important juvenile sentencing case was up for review at the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, Bostic v. Dunbar. In March, I did a quick case summary citing legal history, news clips, a scientific study, and a detailed report from The Intercept. Petitioner Bobby Bostic was 16 years-old when he committed a series of armed robberies and assault with his friend, Donald Hutson (18). Hutson pled ‘guilty’ and is eligible for parole this year according to The Intercept, while Bostic refused a plea agreement, went to trial, and was sentenced to a consecutive term of 241 years. Judge Evelyn Baker punished Bostic for his immaturity, criminal choices, and lack of apparent regret.
Bostic petitioned the Missouri Supreme Court and later the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied his petition on April 23, 2018. The sad outcome is that the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Bostic’s case leaves a gaping hole of uncertainty in the future of sentencing for juveniles in the United States. As Bostic carried out his term of years, the Supreme Court decided a series of cases that supported just penalties and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the sentencing of juveniles (see second half of post). One of the Court’s cases, Roper v. Simmons, relied on scientific evidence revealing that adolescent brains are not fully formed. None of the cases, however, were enough to give Bostic a second chance at having his term of years resentenced into one that is effectively not a juvenile life sentence in prison without parole. Juvenile death penalties and juvenile life sentences w/o parole are both unconstitutional violations of the Eighth Amendment, based on Supreme Court decisions analyzed in detail here.
What’s next? Some commentators note that Bostic may have an opportunity for federal habeas corpus, and that the Court might have denied Bostic’s petition because there are unresolved state law issues. A report from the Associated Press writes that dozens of petitioners have had their former juvenile sentences reconsidered since the Court’s recent decision on the matter in 2016 (Montgomery v. Louisiana). Some inmates won resentencing and release. Others, like Bostic, have not.
One thought that I cannot ignore is Bobby Bostic’s prospect of a lesser sentence had he pled, ‘guilty.’ The Intercept wrote that Hutson is up for parole this year. Hutson accepted a guilty plea agreement. He will have a free life ahead of him and he committed (jointly) the same crimes that Bostic committed. I have no doubt that Bostic’s defense attorneys (public defenders) encouraged Bostic to plead a sentence that would offer him the best opportunity for future release. Yet Bostic must have felt intensely that pleading guilty would mean that he would openly admit to all charges against him; even if he did not carry out some of them, or if some charges were inaccurate. Perhaps most tragically, Bostic’s father encouraged Bostic not to take the plea agreement, and “be a man.” How easy or reasonable is that entire decision process at age 16/17?
State courts should continue to provide administrative protections and remedies to juveniles throughout the sentencing process. Juveniles who are essentially sentenced as adults, (like Bostic), could receive a type of safe harbor protection. This protection would allow a juvenile to withdraw a ‘not guilty’ plea before a judge, even after that plea has been formally entered and after the judge has made a sentencing decision. Within seven days of sentencing, for example, a juvenile could withdraw a plea of ‘not guilty’ and then plead guilty to all charges. This would be the only legal remedy available to the juvenile other than an appeal or other existing remedy. The juvenile would be able to change only the plea in full if she is facing multiple charges, and she would be eligible to receive a new sentencing based on the change in plea. The judge would have limited discretion in deciding whether or not to accept the new, changed plea. The decision should weigh in favor of the juvenile petitioner. This safe harbor remedy would inevitably draw out the timeline of relief for victims and survivors, but it could give juvenile petitioners a window of time to meet again with their public defenders, along with a team of case/social workers even after pleading, ‘not guilty.’ They might also receive additional psychological imaging/testing, for example; (there was unconfirmed(?) speculation that Bostic had brain damage).
Could this ever work?
Juvenile court systems would need to change dramatically. Sentencing guidelines would see an almost complete upheaval, and jury decisions in juvenile trials could have significantly less weight. But is that what is needed to ensure that while justice is guaranteed to victims, the same is also served in relative proportion to juveniles who commit crimes that don’t result in the death of another individual? Is it still fair to the victims if juveniles are not punished so harshly? Maybe, yes. Because the same juvenile offenders will have a greater opportunity for rehabilitation and reform – like Bobby Bostic. Bostic earned degrees, published, and became a Paralegal while in prison. I do not know that there are many inmates with his type of story. Juvenile offenders can become people who return the adequate justice served on them to their communities, through requirements of continued rehabilitation and public service after release from prison.
The Supreme Court has already found it essential to provide constitutional protections and safeguards to juveniles. It is up to the states to continue to support efforts for enhanced justice for minors who commit serious crimes, while they are still in reality just starting to become adults.
*Although it addresses important and ongoing legal issues, no information in this post or site constitutes legal advice.*
Brief Bio on Judge Baker – Courthouse News Service.
- -> In-depth background; including interview transcript with Judge Baker, from National Public Radio’s Scott Simon (NPR) (2018).
List of state legislation, provisions on juvenile sentencing/parole – The Associated Press (AP) (2017).
National Survey Report on “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers:” – Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based advocacy center (2012).
Juvenile Law Center Overview + Legal Docket supporting Bobby Bostic in Bostic v. Dunbar. The Juvenile Law Center is the first non-profit youth public interest law firm in the country. Based in Philadelphia, the Center joined other friends of the Court to file an amicus brief in Missouri District Court on behalf of Bostic in 2012.
“Creating Meaningful Opportunities for Release: Graham, Miller, and California’s Youth Offender Parole Hearings.” – Associate Professor of Legal Analysis, Writing and Skills, Beth Caldwell, Southwestern Law School. Article published in the N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change (2016).
Key Supreme Court rulings and their meaning described in detail, “Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview.” – The Sentencing Project (noted above).
“Why are we sentencing juveniles to die in prison?” – Article from USA Today. Karl Racine, Miriam Aroni Krinsky, Shay Bilchik, (Opinion contributors) (2018).
Bobby Bostic’s 2017 petition for cert to the U.S. Supreme Court. SCOTUS denied the petition; (i.e. refused to hear additional arguments or make a decision on his case). Bostic v. Dunbar, 138 S. Ct. 1593 (2018).