Life Without Parole for Juveniles?

May 28th, 2009

During the Supreme Court’s next term (begins the first Monday in October) the cases of two juveniles who have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole will be heard by the Justices. The two then juveniles are now adults. One, Joe Sullivan, was sentenced at the age of 13 for raping an elderly lady; he is now 33. The other, Terrance Graham, was sentenced at the age of 17 for robbing a homeowner at gunpoint while on parole for another armed robbery; he is now in his early 20s. Neither case involved a homicide (the death of a victim).

These are obviously not the nicest kids on anyone’s block, and had their offenses been committed when they were adults, their sentences would not be in question today. But they were not adults — they were two kids doing very bad things. (There are, incidentally, over 2,000 people in jails around the country who are serving life without parole and who were given that sentence while they were juveniles.)

Personally, I will agree with people who work with juveniles (social workers and psychiatrists) who say that “youths are developmentally and psychologically different from adults and should not be subject to prison sentences that ignore the possibility of rehabilitation.” To put it a different way, children are not considered adults in any other area of the law because they do not have the emotional or mental development of adults, and for that reason they should not be treated as adults.

The lawyers who will be presenting the cases for the petitioners during the Supreme Court hearings are: Bryan Stevenson (Sullivan’s attorney), the Director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, a nonprofit organization providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who they feel have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system; and Bryan S. Gowdy (Graham’s attorney), who practices law in Jacksonville, FL.

One of the arguments that these attorneys will use in front of the Supremes is: “The U.S. is the only country in the world where people as young at 13 can be sentenced to die in prison.” That particular argument bothers me on two fronts:

First, it appeals to that “America’s image in the world” argument that should have nothing to do with our laws — we should not be bound by or even consider what other countries do or don’t do, and certainly the Supreme Court, which is charged with interpreting OUR laws and OUR constitution should not consider international standards. But they have in the past, and they probably will consider that in these cases.

Secondly, I doubt if the argument is strictly true. There are many countries in the world where really cruel (but unfortunately not unusual there) punishments are meted out without regard to age — life in prison in those places would be a young criminal’s preference. In Iran, for example, according to Amnesty International: “Iran has executed at least 42 juvenile offenders since 1990, eight of whom were executed in 2008. Most recently, a juvenile was executed on 21 January of this year.”

Regardless of the practices of our uncivilized neighbors — or even the civilized ones — the way other countries treat their juvenile offenders should not be a standard for the U.S. justice system. In the cases of Sullivan and Graham, I hope, because of their ages (mental as well as physical) when these offenses were committed, that the Justices find that they were unfairly sentenced.

For juvenile offenders, the standard should always be: confinement, attempted rehabilitation, and the possibility of parole should the rehabilitation be successful.

News links:

Supreme Court to Hear Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Cases, Youth Today
Life in prison for criminal teens? Supreme Court to decide, Christian Science Monitor

Blog links:

Sentencing Kids to Life Without Parole: Costly, Cruel & Foolish, Talk Left
Change the Juvenile Lifer Law, Abolish Life Without Parole Sentences for Children in the USA

(This article was also posted at My View from the Center.)

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4 Responses to “Life Without Parole for Juveniles?”

  1. Larry |

    This is one of those slippery slope issues that arise quite frequently in our justice system. It plays to the same school of thought that has given us the little bit dead and little bit pregnant syndrome. We are put in the position to decide which crimes are a little bad and which are real acts of evil. As if that’s not confusing enough we now must decide if the crime either little or really bad are also hate crimes. I noticed that no where in your article was there effort to say that these two were innocent. Everyone knows that the commission of a crime will lead to punishment. Why arrange for them to be repeat offenders. Lock them away for good.

  2. Tom |

    The two people discussed in the article apparently weren’t innocent. But that isn’t the issue. When we sentence someone who commits a crime as an adolescent to life in prison without a chance for parole, we’re really saying that this unformed life is forever worthless to society. Maybe there are people who are innocent choirboys at 13 or 16 and never do anything wrong, but I didn’t know any of them when I was that age, and I certainly wasn’t one. Granted, neither I nor any other teenager I knew murdered someone, but all of us grew, learned, and matured — sometimes to the point of not really being the same person any more.

    I’m certainly not soft on crime. I believe that those who commit serious crimes should be seriously punished, and I understand that the punishments are really about protecting society from bad people and extracting revenge for their misdeeds. Rehabilitation is largely a myth; if it happens at all, it happens within the person sitting in prison.

    We need to know if and when a person in prison can be safely released back into society, regardless of the seriousness of his crime. That’s what parole is for, and life sentences should provide for it. As for revenge — well, I think taking away the middle 20 or 30 years of a life is revenge enough for just about any crime.

    Another important issue for society is what actually happens to someone in prison. What the justice system is supposed to be doing is depriving someone of “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What prisoners often endure — beatings, physical and sexual assaults, constant intimidation, daily fear — really are “torture,” and it should be stopped.

    I’m very much against the death penalty. I’m also against life sentences in all but the most extreme cases, and then there must be provision for parole reviews. Beyond that, I’d like to see a lot fewer people in our prisons. As far as I’m personally concerned, the only people I want my tax dollars to support in prison are those who would likely harm me or others if they were free. There are punishment alternatives to prison, and we should make better use of them.

  3. Harvey |


    You say: “Everyone knows that the commission of a crime will lead to punishment.” Do they really?

    We had two different sets of circumstances here and (My BAD) I guess I should have left 17 y/o Terrance Graham out of the article. He was certainly old enough to understand the consequences of what he was doing — especially since he had already committed virtually the same crime before. He should have been in jail — but for life? That sounds strangely draconian for any American court — especially when dealing with a juvenile offender.

    Now 13 y/o Joe Sullivan is, to my mind, a very different case. What 13 y/o really understands anything outside of (possibly) his school work. No way a 13 y/o should be imprisoned for life for committing a sex crime. He needs help for sure and, as Tom pointed out in his great response, the only help he no doubt got in prison was first, an opportunity to be a victim of sex crimes and secondly a golden opportunity to commit more.

  4. Larry |

    I’d beg to differ with your reasoning. At thirteen I was enough of an adult to understand the consequences of breaking the law. My parents, my formal education and my church had impressed on me the folly of being a law breaker. Of course one school of thought has it that many laws are made to be broken but rape of elderly women is not in my opinion one of them. I’ll add in fairness to both you and Tom, I’m not suggesting that you condone such behavior.
    We might also address the issue of life in prison. People tend to throw the term around to underscore their ridicule and dislike of the justice system in this country. Truth is that life sentences are seldom imposed except in capitol crimes. The system tends to put to many bad people back in society to soon. This is especially true with rapist and child molesters.

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