Center for Civil Rights and Youth Justice Clinic File Amicus Brief in Fourth Circuit Case Challenging North Carolina Parole System Treatment of Juvenile Offenders

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On February 16, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the UNC Youth Justice Clinic filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Hayden v. Butler.  The amicus brief supports Plaintiff-Appellee Shaun Hayden, a North Carolina prisoner challenging the constitutionality of the State’s parole system as it applies to juvenile offenders.  Hayden, who is represented by North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for crimes he committed when he was 15.

Hayden’s claim relies on the United States Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, in Graham v. Florida, that juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide crimes must be provided a meaningful opportunity to obtain parole.  In North Carolina, most prisoners are denied parole without advance notice that their case is being reviewed.  State Parole Commissioners cast electronic votes on more than 90 parole cases each day, all without even meeting to deliberate.  Commissioners cannot account for the unique characteristics of youth in this process because they do not even know whether a given parole candidate is a juvenile offender.  In September 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled in Hayden’s favor, declared the parole process unconstitutional, and ordered the State to reform its parole system to provide such a meaningful opportunity for parole to juvenile offenders.  The State appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Center and Youth Justice Clinic’s amicus brief emphasizes that North Carolina’s parole system disproportionately impacts non-white juvenile offenders.  State data reveals that 172 North Carolina inmates are currently serving life sentences, with the possibility of parole, for crimes they committed as children.  Over 73% of these inmates are African American.  This racial disparity tracks the uneven policing and punishment of non-white youth more generally.  Non-white children are more likely to be suspended from school for identical behavior, more likely to enter the juvenile justice system, more likely to be transferred to criminal court, and more likely to be housed in adult prison.

Although similar racial disparities exist throughout the nation, amici also argue that North Carolina stands alone in its failure to account for the unique characteristics of youth in its justice system.  Graham, along with three other juvenile punishment cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court since 2005, is guided by one key principle: the unique characteristics of youth—including lessened culpability and a greater capacity for change—must be considered when juvenile offenders are sentenced.  Despite this fact, North Carolina is the only state that automatically treats 16 and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal courts with no ability to be returned to juvenile court.  This practice is particularly troubling because youth sent to adult court are more likely to recidivate, less likely to receive specialized services, and more vulnerable to abuse in adult facilities.

Taken together, the racial disparities and distinct disregard for youth’s unique characteristics that mark North Carolina’s criminal justice system mean that an unnecessarily high number of children—and non-white children in particular—are subject to the State’s unconstitutionally deficient parole process.

Hayden v. Butler is scheduled for argument before the Fourth Circuit in May. 

Posted by Brent J. Ducharme on Thu. February 18, 2016 2:42 PM
Categories: Amicus Curiae, Criminal Justice
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