Life Without Parole for Juveniles?

Standard

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 that 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, 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:

Youth Today: Supreme Court to Hear Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Cases

Christian Science Monitor: Life in prison for criminal teens? Supreme Court to decide

Blog Links:

Abolish Life Without Parole Sentences for Children in the USA: Change the Juvenile Lifer Law

Talk Left: Sentencing Kids to Life Without Parole: Costly, Cruel & Foolish

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