Joe Sullivan was 13 when he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 72-year-old woman in Pensacola, Florida, in 1989. Having already committed a string of petty crimes, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In an appeal now being considered by the Supreme Court, Sullivan, now 34, and Terrance Graham, who committed armed burglary in Florida at age 16, are asking the Court to decide whether their sentences violate the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishments."
A ruling is expected this spring. In the meantime, debate rages over the ethics of locking up teenage offenders for the rest of their lives.
The United States is the only country that makes routine use of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders. Human rights groups say about 2,500 prisoners in the U.S. are serving such sentences for crimes they committed when they were 17 or younger. A vast majority of those crimes involved a killing by the defendant or an accomplice. But 109 people are serving life without parole for juvenile offenses that did not involve a homicide.
In Florida the state with the highest number of non homicide juvenile lifers--judges, lawmakers, and prosecutors are divided about whether sentencing juveniles to life without parole is appropriate.
"Sometimes a 15-year-old has a tremendous appreciation for right and wrong," says Florida State Representative William Snyder. "I think it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to say that it was patently illegal or improper to sentence a youthful offender to life without parole. At a certain point, juveniles cross the line, and they have to be treated as adults and punished as adults."
ROPER V. SIMMONS
But John R. Blue, a retired Florida appeals court judge, doesn't see it that way. "To lock them up forever seems a little barbaric to me," Judge Blue says. "You ought to leave them some hope."
At the Supreme Court hearing in November, Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "It's pretty unusual to have this," he said. And, at least for 13-year-olds, he continued, "it is a cruel thing to do to remove from that individual his entire life."
The question of whether life without parole for juveniles is constitutional is a logical next step following the Court's 2005 decision m Roper v. Simmons, which struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles. (See "Teen Rights: What the Supreme Court Has Said," p. 17.)
Writing for the majority in that case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that even older teenagers are different from adults--less mature and more susceptible to peer pressure-and therefore less accountable for their actions. These factors, Kennedy wrote, made it "less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character."
A ruling that extended that reasoning beyond the death penalty "could be the Brown v. Board of Education of juvenile law," says Paolo G. Annino of Florida State University's law school.
Although the case before the Supreme Court deals specifically with the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole for crimes that did not involve homicide, Annino...