Justices Weigh Life Without Parole for Juveniles

By Mark Walsh — November 09, 2009 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today took up took the cases of offenders sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

Nearly two hours of arguments covered such issues as what age to draw the line over such punishments, the purposes of incarceration, and whether offenders sentenced to life receive educational services despite their lack of hope of rejoining society.

“You suggested in your brief that educational and vocational training is not given to people who are in for life without parole because they will never be out on the street so they don’t need to be transitioned back,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said to the lawyer for one of the offenders in the first case today, Graham v. Florida (Case No. 08-7412). “Is that true?”

“Yes, that is generally true,” said Bryan S. Gowdy, the lawyer representing Terrance Jamar Graham, who was 17 in 2006 when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole after his participation in a home invasion robbery (which had come as another strike on his record of other crimes). “It’s generally true that those programs are not available to offenders who get life without parole. And that’s what makes the sentence so particularly cruel, to give up on a kid at that point in his life.”

The second case, Sullivan v. Florida (No. 08-7621) involves Joe Harris Sullivan, who was 13 in 1989 when he beat and raped a 72-year-old woman. The main question in both cases is whether sentencing youths to life in prison without parole for crimes committed as juveniles (and that don’t involve homicide) constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

“To say to any child of 13 that you are only fit to die in prison is cruel,” Bryan Stevenson, Sullivan’s lawyer, told the court. “It can’t be reconciled with what we know about the nature of children, about the character of children. It cannot be reconciled with our standards of decency, and we believe that the Constitution obligates us to enforce those standards and reverse this judgment.”

At issue is whether the Supreme Court is prepared to extend to the sentence of life without parole the logic of its 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, which struck down the death penalty for youthful offenders. In Roper, the court ruled 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing for the majority that both a national consensus and research on the adolescent brain make it “misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult.”

The court’s conservatives and liberals generally appeared to be lined up the same way today, with Justice Kennedy a bit hard to read.

“What is the state’s interest in keeping the ... defendant in custody for the rest of his life if he has been rehabilitated and is no longer a real danger?” Justice Kennedy asked of Florida Solicitor General Scott D. Makar, who represented the state in both cases.

“Well, I think certainly the state of Florida’s interest as among other states is first of all to punish,” Makar said. “Certainly I think deterrence plays a role. We recognize that deterrence may have less impact on some juveniles, but it doesn’t have -- it doesn’t have zero impact. It does have some impact on juveniles.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the successor to retired Justice David H. Souter, who was in the majority in Roper, pressed Makar on the degree to which age matters in sentencing youths in adult proceedings.

“Help me draw the line -- if 10 is in my judgment too early, why isn’t 14, 16 or 18?” Justice Sotomayor said. “Meaning why should someone below the age of 14 be sentenced to life without parole?”

Justice Antonin Scalia, a dissenter in Roper, took the lead in attacking the lawyers for the youthful offenders.

“What about historical perspective?” Justice Scalia said. “At common law, which was in effect when the cruel and unusual punishments clause was adopted, 12 years was viewed as the year when a person reaches the age of reason. And -- and the death penalty could not be inflicted on anyone [below that age] and all felonies were the death penalty.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who were not on the court when Roper was decided, also appeared sympathetic to the state of Florida, although the chief justice appeared to be searching for a middle ground that would attract the vote of Justice Kennedy.

Roberts, noting that at least 38 states allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole, said, “I would have thought that would be strong evidence that [the states] appreciate the gravity of the sentence in the particular circumstances of juveniles and therefore only impose it rarely.”

Speaking to Stevenson, the chief justice later called for greater consideration of age in a case-by-case approach rather than a blanket rule striking down such sentences at a specific age.

“Your client -- his crime is horrendously violent,” Chief Justice Roberts said of Sullivan, the 13-year-old convicted of raping the elderly woman. “At the same time, he is much younger than in the typical case. And it seems to me that requiring under the Eighth Amendment consideration of his age ... avoids all these line-drawing problems, which seem -- the arbitrariness of the line-drawing seems inconsistent with the notion of the Eighth Amendment.”

Justice John Paul Stevens, who was with the majority in Roper, was seeking to make a point about research on recividism when he said, “There are an awful lot of amicus briefs in this case, and I haven’t been able to read them all by any means.”

One of the friend-of-the-court briefs on the side of the two youth offenders is from a group of educators, scholars, and child advocates that includes Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone; David Domenici and James Forman Jr., the founders of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in the District of Columbia; and Father Jim Gartland, the president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago.

“Educators like amici agree that sentencing children to die in prison for non-homicide offenses senselessly ignores children’s capacity for growth and rehabilitation so early in
their lives, wrongly treating those adolescents as irretrievably depraved,” the brief says. “As the work of educators vividly demonstrates, however, juveniles are particularly amenable to the positive influences of education, community support, and rehabilitation because they are still developing.”

The cases are expected to be decided by next June.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.