Crime and Punishment

Two seemingly unrelated recent decisions, one in the First Circuit and the other by the Law Court, consider the potential inadequacies of our current criminal justice system to address current social issues:  (1)  U.S. v. Sirois, No. 17-1797  and (2) State of Maine v. J.R., 2018 ME.


In Sirois, after release from federal custody following a drug trafficking conviction, the defendant failed three drug tests and pleaded guilty to felony drug possession in state court.  The district court then found the conduct violated his conditions of supervised release and revoked that release, sending him to prison for two years.  On appeal, the defendant argued that because his drug addiction is a disease, sentencing him to imprisonment for manifesting a condition of his disease was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Because this argument was raised for the first time on appeal, Judge Kayatta, writing for the co-panelists Judges Lynch and Barron (there’s some brain power!), could reject this argument with some ease.  Some of the facts weren’t particularly helpful to the defendant’s cause either.

But the decision does raise the abstract question of what to do in a properly preserved case when the release is conditioned on passing drug tests and the defendant fails the test. In Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968), the  Supreme Court concluded that a chronic alcoholic’s conviction for public drunkenness didn’t violate the 8th Amendment, distinguishing Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962), which struck down a criminal sanction based on status as a narcotics addict.  The public nature of the conduct in Powell took the case outside mere status penalty according to the plurality.  Justice White, concurring only in the judgment in Powell said: “If it cannot be a crime to have an irresistible compulsion to use narcotics, I do not see how it can constitutionally be a crime to yield to such a compulsion.”

Judge Kayatta noted that no appellate court has cited these decisions to hold “that the Eighth Amendment proscribes criminal punishment for conduct that results from narcotic addiction, or has extended their reasoning to this effect. Whatever Powell holds, it does not clearly establish a prohibition on punishing an individual, even an addict, for possessing or using narcotics.”  The Court of Appeals then stated:  “We cannot ignore the reality that drug-addicted defendants are routinely incarcerated for drug use and possession. Whether this practice is good policy is not the question before us. Rather, our inquiry is limited to deciding whether it is ‘clear or obvious’ that the practice is unconstitutional. Given the state of controlling case law, the answer to that question must be no.”


This was an appeal of a District Court juvenile court adjudication (Benson, J.) of criminal mischief and theft, and ordering the juvenile to be committed to Long Creek for an indeterminate period not to exceed his 18th birthday (which would be 18 months of incarceration).  The juvenile argued, among other things, that this commitment would be longer than that to which an adult committing the same misdemeanor crimes would be exposed. The MCLU submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the juvenile. (In a footnote, the Court declined to rule on a claim that the disposition was also cruel and unusual punishment based on conditions at Long Creek, an argument largely asserted by the MCLU, based on the juvenile’s failure to raise the issue before the District Court and the lack of a supporting record in that adjudicatory proceeding.

The Law Court unanimously affirmed the commitment, but at least three of the Justices weren’t happy about it, expressing frustration in a concurrence about a lack of options in this sort of situation (Saufley, CJ, joined by Justices Gorman and Jabar).

The unanimous ruling held that an indeterminate sentence is ok even if it leads to longer terms than adult counterparts because a goal of juvenile sentencing is rehabilitation and treatment.  See State v. Gleason, 404 A.2d 573 (Me. 1979). The Court rejected a disproportionality argument raised for the first time on appeal.  Harking to the rehab point, the opinion (Mead, J.) noted that J.R. needed substance abuse treatment.  The opinion concluded by stating:  “The court is not a provider of social services, and judges’ options for the disposition of cases are limited to existing programs and services. Resources for intervention that have been established by the Legislature, communities, and public and private entities are simply too few and far apart to provide judges with creative alternatives.”

The concurrence amplified upon that last point – if the purpose of juvenile justice is rehabilitation, then there should be adequate alternatives to achieve that rehabilitation.  The only options in this case were probation and commitment, neither palatable.  Probation looked like it wouldn’t work, and incarceration has negative repercussions. (Aside from the personal cost to the juvenile, in a footnote, the concurrence noted that Long Creek costs $250,000 per year per youth.)

In sum, two different decisions in different courts grappling with an issue that seems to permeate every aspect of our society today – drugs, drugs, drugs – and the limitations of the judicial system to deal with this problem.