Supreme Court to Argue Constitutionality of Juvenile Life Imprisonment

Washington—The Supreme Court will debate today over whether or not it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment to sentence juveniles to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for a non-homicide crime.

The death penalty for juveniles was struck down in 2005, by a vote of 5-4, in part because of the justification that children are different from adult criminals, and that execution represents a much different punishment than incarceration. Then, the justices said that juvenile offenders are “substantially less culpable” because of their “youth and immaturity.” Citing impulse control, peer pressure and an inability to think actions through to their potential consequences, the court denied the legality of putting juveniles to death because of the permanency of this punishment.

While no state legislature has ever directly authorized life sentences without the possibility of parole for youth offenders, some states have made it easier to try those children as adults. Florida is one such state, in which any age offender may be tried as an adult. Additionally, Florida and other states have upped the number of non-homicide crimes that can result in a sentence of life without parole. These two factors account for the high number of juvenile offenders who are being put behind bars for life. Representatives for the state of Florida claim that these measures, which we put in place in the 1990s in order to help stem a tide of juvenile crimes, have been effective.

Nineteen states have filed a brief that supports sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without parole, in non-homicide cases.

Two cases, both from Florida—the state with 70 percent of the country’s juveniles who are serving life terms without parole—will illustrate the complications of this issue. The first is that of Terrence Graham, who was 16 when he pleaded guilty to armed robbery. He served one year in jail, was released on probation, and was arrested after an armed home invasion. The judge in his case sent Graham, who was then 17, to prison with no possibility of parole, ignoring the recommendation made by the Department of Corrections that Graham be sentenced to only four years in prison. Graham’s lawyer is claiming that the sentence for armed burglary, since it represents more than double the average murder sentence in Florida, is disproportionately severe.

The other case involved Joe Sullivan, who was 13 at the time of his conviction for raping a 72-year-old woman. Although he had a record which included several misdemeanors, this was Sullivan’s first felony. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole by a judge who described him as “beyond help.”

Opponents of this trend point to rehabilitation programs, and the evidence that once easily pressured teenagers can grow up to do good and forswear a life of crime. The Supreme Court will decide now whether to require that states give them the chance to do so outside of prison walls.

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