Tips on Using Age to Defend Juvenile Clients in Criminal Court, Part 1 – by Guest Blogger John Mills

Last month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued two important juvenile justice decisions.  The first, State v. Bowlin, addressed whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits a juvenile offender from being subject to a mandatory minimum sentence.  The second, State v. Collins, addressed the role of a juvenile’s age and the jurisdiction of the Superior Court.  I’ll cover them in two guest posts.  Each will come with practice points and a brief discussion of the legal background.  I’ll start right here with Bowlin.

Mr. Bowlin’s charges arose out of three alleged incidents of sexual assault of one of the daughters in the family with whom he was living.  At the time of the incidents, the girl was six and Mr. Bowlin was fifteen.  When the girl was thirteen, she revealed the abuse, and Mr. Bowlin, then twenty-two was ultimately convicted at trial.

The state filed a petition in the juvenile court.  Because of his age, by statute, the District Court was forced to choose between dismissing the case (allowing Mr. Bowlin to escape any punishment) and transferring the case to Superior Court (where Mr. Bowlin would face adult sentencing ranges).  The District Court transferred the case.

Practice Point 1: In Superior Court, when representing a person who was less than eighteen at the time of the offense, ask the court to consider the person’s age a mitigating circumstance.  If the court refuses, object, citing the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and to Article I, section Twenty-Seven of the North Carolina Constitution.

In Superior Court, Mr. Bowlin pled guilty.  At sentencing, the Superior Court rejected Mr. Bowlin’s age at the time of the offense as a mitigating factor.  When he was sentenced (and again on appeal), Mr. Bowlin raised an Eighth Amendment challenge to the sentence: being subjected to a mandatory minimum designed for adults for an offense he committed as a fifteen year old is cruel and unusual punishment.  He argued that, because of his age, the sentencing court should have had discretion to impose a shorter sentence than the minimum sentence imposed on adult offenders.

The Court of Appeals rejected the argument.  It held that his sentence was not “grossly disproportionate” to the offense.  The lack of disproportion ended the inquiry for the court because the sentence was to a term of years. Without explaining why, the court also “note[d] that the trial court exercised its discretion to consolidate the offenses and to sentence the defendant in the mitigated range, but chose not to find ” that Mr. Bowlin’s age at the time of the offense was mitigating.  The court did not explain the significance of its note.  A petition for discretionary review to the North Carolina Supreme Court has been filed but not yet ruled on.

The court’s bottom line holding is in conflict with at least two recent cases either invalidating or calling into question mandatory minimums for juvenile offenders. Until the North Carolina Supreme Court takes up this important constitutional question, Eighth Amendment challenges to mandatory minimums, even imposed on juveniles, may prove unavailing.

However, the court’s note highlights two open questions about juvenile sentencing in North Carolina.  First, is a juvenile offender ever entitled, as a matter of law, to have age found as a mitigating factor? Second, if a sentencing court lacks discretion to consider a juvenile’s age and craft a sentence accordingly, does that sentence comply with the Eighth Amendment?

Starting in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has time and again recognized “what every parent knows”:  juveniles (1) “lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility leading to “ill-considered actions and decisions,” (2) are “susceptible to negative influences,” and (3) have a personality and character that is “not as well formed.”   For these reasons, the high Court has held that the primary purposes of punishment—retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation—are ill-served by imposing lengthy prison sentences on juveniles.  Most recently, the Court explained that these facts about juveniles means “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’”

Practice Point 2: Throughout the case, but particularly in transfer proceedings and at sentencing, link the Supreme Court’s language about a juvenile client’s limitations to your client’s behavior and make the case that your client is a good candidate for rehabilitation.

Returning to the first open question, the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeated reliance on these basic facts to hold that a juvenile’s culpability is less than that of an adult calls into question any sentencing judge’s decision that age is not a mitigating factor (something not challenged in Bowlin).  When representing a juvenile in Superior Court sentencing proceedings, there is no reason not to object—citing the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and to Article 1, section 27 to the North Carolina Constitution—to a sentencing judge’s decision not to find that the age of a juvenile client is a mitigating factor.  For reasons similar to the limitations inherent to youth, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that limitations in cognitive functioning are “inherently mitigating.”  We should demand courts hold the same regarding our juvenile clients’ age and ask them to find a juvenile’s age mitigating as a matter off law.

The second open question is narrower: whether the Eighth Amendment is satisfied if the sentencing court has no discretion to tailor the sentence to the defendant’s age.  The context in which this arises in North Carolina is felony murder by a person less than eighteen years old.  A juvenile convicted of felony murder receives a life sentence without possibility of parole for twenty-five years.  No other sentence is available.  There is no shortage of scholarship explaining the case for an Eighth Amendment bar to blocking sentencers from considering a juvenile offender’s age and crafting a sentence accordingly.  The basic argument is that “children are different” and require the increased protection of individualized consideration vis-à-vis a discretionary sentence.  If the argument holds, then the mandatory sentence of twenty-five to life violates the Eighth Amendment.  The Court of Appeals’ apparent need to “note” that there was discretion suggests this may be an issue it will need to take up in the future.

Regardless, Bowlin highlights the ongoing importance of being attuned to the limitations that our juvenile clients have and the need to link those limitations to why our clients are good candidates for rehabilitation and mercy.

John R. Mills is a Principal Attorney with Phillips Black, a non-profit, public interest law practice.

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