"Sexually Dangerous" Inmates May Be Held Indefinitely

The Supreme Court has ruled that some sex offenders can be held indefinitely after their sentences are over, if they are deemed "sexually dangerous." The high court also ruled that teen-age juvenile offenders may not be jailed for life without parole if they have not killed anyone. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with Washington Post writer Eva Rodriguez for more on the Supreme Court rulings.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, the mess in the Gulf has left oystermen, crabbers and shrimpers without an income. And the entrenched Vietnamese-American fishermen may be hardest hit of all.

But first, word today from the U.S. Supreme Court, two decisions that will change the way inmates or young offenders are handled in the criminal justice system. The court said that sex offenders who remain sexually dangerous can have their sentences extended beyond their original release dates.

That sounds like, well, a big deal. So let's get to it with Eva Rodriguez. She's on the editorial board at The Washington Post, and she's a former Supreme Court reporter. Eva, thanks for joining us.

Ms. EVA RODRIGUEZ (The Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

KEYES: So, Eva, how can they delay somebody's release date? That's something set in stone or something, right?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, that's our understanding. But just to sort of step back here for a second and put this decision in context, the court has ruled before that states may actually keep beyond a release date prisoners that are deemed to be sexually dangerous.

So, really, the only question here was whether the federal government may do so. And seven of the nine justices said yes, and the reason being is someone may serve his or her sentence. And, again, we're talking about sexual predators, sexual offenders, folks who have committed sexual crimes against children. And the argument here is you may have completed your sentence, but you still may be a danger if released.

And so, the Supreme Court has said it's okay for the federal government, just as states have done, to hold you back to provide mental health services, things like that, and not release you until the government has deemed you to be safe to be back in society again.

KEYES: Was it part of the issue here whether the federal government had the power to do what some said only the states had power to do?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. And in dissent, Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia continued to hold to the argument that the federal government does not have the power under the Constitution to do this, that this is something that is reserved to the states.

But the majority said that Congress was well within its rights under a part of the Constitution that allows it to promulgate laws that are necessary, to act in this way and in the public interest.

KEYES: Really briefly, Eva, does this underscore the argument that - there are some that have said sex offenders are treated as permanent menaces to society. Does this buttress that claim?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: As a matter of law, and what the court did today, no. But as a matter of just common sense, yes. I mean, they are saying that there is a legitimate reason for the federal government and states to enact these kinds of laws and policies. So, it does underscore it to that extent, absolutely.

KEYES: There was another big decision today about juvenile offenders that was based on the case of Terrance Graham who is serving time in a Florida prison. He was sentenced to life without parole for two armed robberies, one at age 16 and one at 17. So, the court ruled that this violated a ban on cruel and unusual punishment to keep him there forever?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. The court said that when you're dealing with someone who's 18 years of age or younger, it is cruel and unusual punishment to deem him locked up for life without any possibility of ever getting out. In part, the court said that teenagers don't have the sort of discipline or self-control that adults have, and they're capable of changing, learning and growing and becoming mature members of society.

So the court, the majority of the court drew a bright line and said if you're 18 years old or younger at the time of an offense, not murder, but anything short of murder, then you cannot be hit with a life without parole sentence.

KEYES: On the juvenile ruling, Clarence Thomas and a couple of the other justices dissented, right? What was their basis?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Right. They said, look, who are we, as judges, to determine what an appropriate sentence is? They basically argued that it should be left up to the states to determine through hearings, through research, through judgment, through the will of the people what sentences should be.

And Justice Thomas, in a really sort of impassioned dissent, said a 17-year-old could commit an incredibly heinous crime short of murder that may, in fact, be the kind of crime that you would think mandates life without parole. So, he's arguing that the justices shouldn't substitute their own judgment for that of lawmakers.

KEYES: Very briefly, Eva, are these sentences common among juveniles?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: They really aren't, and that was part of the argument for throwing them out altogether. As Justice Kennedy said in the majority, some 26, 27 states have laws on their books that allows life without parole sentences with juveniles who commit non-murders. But very few of them enact them. And Justice Kennedy said, see, that shows that these laws are out of date, that our evolving standards of decency today indicate that these laws are not acceptable.

KEYES: Is this decision going to apply retroactively to individuals that are already sentenced?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I don't know. I don't think so. These rulings usually don't apply retroactively. That's sort of a separate determination to be made. And the court is silent on that.

KEYES: Eva Rodriguez is a member of The Washington Post editorial board and a former Supreme Court reporter. She joined us from The Washington Post. Eva, thanks a lot for speaking with us.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

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