Doctorate in Law and Policy (LPD) faculty weigh in on Supreme Court juvenile justice cases

April 6, 2012

When the Supreme Court addressed the controversial issue of life without parole for juvenile offenders this spring, Northeastern University College of Professional Studies Doctorate in Law and Policy (LPD) Program Director Dan Urman and core faculty member James (Jamie) Alan Fox were there for the oral arguments, as educators and in the case of Fox, as a "friend of the court" who had filed an amicus brief on the topic. And, as a major law and public policy matter, both the oral arguments and the decision will become part of each faculty member's curriculum. 

The justices examined two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, in which defendants were 14 years old when they were involved in a homicide. In the case of Miller v. Alabama, Evan Miller, who lives in Alabama, was 14 years old in 2003 when he and an older youth beat a 52-year-old neighbor and set his house on fire. The neighbor died of smoke inhalation. In the case of Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson, who lives in Arkansas, was 14 years old in 1999 when he and two older youths tried to rob a video store. One of the other youths shot and killed a store clerk, but Jackson was convicted under a doctrine known as "felony murder." 

Fox, a core faculty member in the LPD program and an expert on criminal justice, has published books, columns and a popular blog for Boston.com. He was part of a group of national experts who submitted a "friend of the court" brief for the justices' review in this case. After watching the oral arguments, Fox noted: "the Justices didn't spend much time discussing the fact that if you have life WITH parole, that doesn't mean that the defendants necessarily get parole! It means that the decision about how long to keep someone in prison is made down the road when you see what kind of person they developed into." The conclusion of the amicus brief states: "Extensive research data demonstrate that the notion of a generation of juvenile superpredators, which sought to explain the spike in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the predictions by the proponents of the juvenile superpredator myth that juvenile violent crime would continue to increase sharply, were wrong."

In representing both defendants in these arguments, Bryan A. Stevenson, a lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, argued that juveniles are capable of change, but should be held accountable for their actions: "They can even impose sentences that give them the authority to maintain control of the lives of these children for the rest of their natural lives". 

Urman, Director of the LPD program, commented on the oral arguments: "It was fascinating to see the Justices testing out their theories and potential conclusions through the attorneys. Justices Alito and Sotomayor each asked Bryan Stevenson, the attorney for both defendants, how he would write the opinion for them. The toughest questions dealt with whether there should be a categorical ban on 14 year olds receiving life without parole, a case-by-case examination, or a categorical ban on anyone under the age of 18."   

Press reports indicate that the Supreme Court ruling on these cases will be handed down in June, near the conclusion of this court's term. 

Urman teaches Introduction to Law and Legal Reasoning, Introduction to American Government, U.S. Judicial Processes, and Strategizing Public Policy. Fox teaches Introductory and Advanced Statistics, as well as courses on Criminal Violence, The Death Penalty, Homicide, and Serial Killers.

Update: On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole violates the eight amendment for those under 18 years of age. The decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, ruled that the U.S. Constitution forbids "requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes." Northeastern Professor and Doctorate in Law and Policy faculty member James Alan Fox wrote this op-ed for the Boston Globe on the impact the case will have in Massachusetts. Listen to Fox's interview with Radio Boston, WBUR entitled, Supreme Court Decision Calls Into Question Scores of Juvenile Cases in Mass.  

Doctorate in Law and Policy
The LPD program is structured so that coursework and the doctoral thesis may be completed in two years. Classes meet one weekend per month in Boston, and the learning continues online throughout the rest of the month. The LPD program's unique hybrid format encourages collaboration within and between cohorts. Every year, a committee chooses a select group of doctoral students are to begin the program. All students follow the same schedule through eight consecutive terms.

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