By Gretchen Schuldt
A federal judge has given the ACLU and its partners the go-ahead to argue that juveniles sentenced to life without a meaningful chance at parole are denied their constitutional right to a jury trial.
It is a new argument in the national battle over juvenile life sentences and one that, if successful, would lead to "significant extensions of current law," according to U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson, who is presiding over the case.
The ACLU of Wisconsin brought the class-action lawsuit in April on behalf of juvenile lifers. It seeks to reform the state's parole process and provide qualified juvenile lifers a meaningful chance at walking out the prison gates.
The suit alleges that the state consistently denies "release on parole to juvenile lifers who demonstrate unmistakable maturity, rehabilitation and reform, and a low risk to public safety," violations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process.
The suit also alleges the state violates the juveniles Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because juries are not making key findings in juvenile lifer cases.
Peterson previously granted the ACLU's request to pursue the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment arguments, but initially delayed his ruling on the jury trial claim.
The ACLU said that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a juvenile cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless he or she is “irreparably corrupt." Whether a young person fits in that category is something the jury in a case should decide because it is a jury's duty to make decisions on factors other than a prior conviction that could increase a person's sentence, the ACLU said.
But juries are not making that decision – Department of Corrections staff and Parole Commission members are, the ACLU said. By finding that juvenile lifers haven't served enough time in light of their offenses, DOC staff and Parole Commission members have, in essence, found that the juvenile lifers are irreparably corrupt.
The ACLU and its partners also are arguing state officials are usurping the jury's role by denying parole to eligible juvenile lifers simply because the officials believe that the lifers haven't been punished enough without considering whether they have been rehabilitated.
Peterson suggested the ACLU might have a difficult road ahead.
"For plaintiffs to prevail on either of these theories, they will have to show that they are
entitled to significant extensions of current law," he said.
Peterson said he is unaware of any case where a court accepted the arguments the ACLU is making.
"The court is also not aware of cases in which courts have considered the arguments that
plaintiffs are raising," he wrote. "Under these circumstances, the court concludes that it would be premature to dismiss these claims without giving plaintiffs the opportunity to develop them in the context of adversary proceedings."
The ACLU is joined in the case by the Quarles & Brady and Foley & Lardner law firms; Issa Kohler-Hausmann, a Yale University law professor; and attorney Avery P. Gilbert, of Rhinecliff, NY.
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