The Justice Department is studying Monday's Supreme Court ruling barring life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes, possibly with an eye toward improving rehabilitation programs for juveniles in prison.
"We have this decision very much on our radar screen," Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson told an American Bar Association public defender conference in Knoxville Thursday night. Robinson, who heads the office of justice programs, was asked about Graham v. Florida, in which the high court said life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles for crimes short of murder are unconstitutional. The questioner asked if the ruling might result in more funding for programs for juveniles in prison. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion, said such a lengthy sentence "forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal," and that juveniles with such a sentence are often denied access to vocational or rehabilitative programs because they have no prospect of returning to society.
Without offering details, Robinson linked her statement that the department is studying the decision to the overall effort to revitalize the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention "after a period of neglect."
In her remarks Robinson, who held the same Justice Department position during the Clinton Administration, reiterated Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s commitment, expressed at a February symposium, to improving indigent defense. "For Eric Holder and this Department of Justice, equal justice under law is not a mere outgrowth of important legal principles, but the bedrock of American jurisprudence," Robinson said. "This is something Eric Holder is very passionate about." She detailed several programs planned or underway to hire more public defenders and improve the process and perception of justice, including one aimed at training judges and other participants in the justice system to better explain to indigent defendants what is happening.
Robinson also pointed to Holder's recruitment of Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe to head an "access to justice initiative" which, she pledged, will produce programs that will put indigent defense "front and center." Robinson said of Tribe's project, "I feel great about it. I'm thrilled he's there."