Will Supreme Court Outlaw Juvenile Life Sentences?

Iraq doesn't do it. North Korea considers it a cruel form of punishment. But in the United States sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole is legal.

But on November 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up two cases involving juvenile offenders in Florida who claim their life sentences for rape and robbery violate the cruel-and-unusual-punishment clauses of the Constitution.

There are about 2,500 juveniles (ranging in age from 13 to 17) currently sentenced to life in prison in the United States. No other country in the world currently has adolescents serving this sentence, reports the Frank C. Newman International Human Rights Law Clinic.

"We aren't saying that all of these kid offenders should be let out," says Connie de la Vega, Professor of Law at University of San Francisco School of Law. "They should be given a chance to rehabilitate themselves. They should be given the chance to apply for parole, even if it's after 10 or 15 years."

The cases the Supreme Court will hear are Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, involving cases of rape and robbery by a then 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, respectively. If the court determines these sentences are unconstitutional, Joe Sullivan, now 33, and Terrance Graham, now 22, currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, could each be granted a new hearing to determine a revised sentence.

If the court finds the sentence unconstitutional, it could give them the right to go before a parole board to determine whether they are fit to assimilate back into society. It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card, human-rights advocates are quick to note. Some juvenile offenders could still be forced to spend life behind bars, while others are set free early. "We don't let them vote or enter into contracts, but we are subjecting kids to sentences that are for a mature adult," says de la Vega. "I think the red flag is, How could we be the only country in the world doing this? Why are we treating our kids so badly?"

But some argue that juveniles should be forced to serve "adult time" when they commit serious crimes. "Most juveniles don't rape, rob, and kill. At some point, it has to be about holding people responsible," says Scott Burns, executive director of National District Attorneys Association, which filed a brief supporting the constitutionality of the sentence.

At least 135 countries have expressly rejected these juvenile sentences through their domestic legal commitments, de la Vega reported in a 2008 article. But besides the United States, 10 other countries have laws that could permit such sentencing procedures; however, none have juvenile offenders who are currently serving such a sentence. These nations include Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Belize, Brunei, Cuba, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka.

Supporters of the sentencing claim life without parole is an essential crime-fighting tool—especially when considering the juvenile crime rates in the United States. The U.S. ranked third in murders committed by youths and 14th in murders per capita committed by youths in a 2002 World Health Organization study. The number of convicted juvenile killers in the U.S. puts it in the same category as countries like Colombia or Mexico, so some would say that we cannot afford to have the same, relatively forgiving, sentencing guidelines as developed countries in Western Europe. The conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report arguing, "If the juvenile crime problem in the United States is not comparable to the juvenile crime problems of other Western nations, then combating it may justifiably require different, and stronger, techniques."

Some adolescent offenders can claim more convictions than years they've been alive. By the time Joe Harris Sullivan was 13 years old he had already been convicted of 17 serious offenses. Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison in 1989 after he and two other boys broke into the home of a 72-year-old woman and stole jewelry and coins. The elderly woman claimed that one of the suspects also beat and raped her, and Sullivan was convicted of the sexual battery. "It's astonishing that anyone could rack up this kind of criminal record at 13. This clearly isn't your typical 13-year-old," says Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization that pushes for stiff criminal sentences and filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the state's position.

At 33, Sullivan has been confined to a wheelchair for the past five years after developing a progressive form of multiple sclerosis. The stress and trauma of incarceration have exacerbated his health conditions, say his attorneys.

Terrance Graham was about a month shy of his 18th birthday when he was convicted of armed robbery while he was already on probation for a previous violent crime. In 2006, Graham was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court will hear Sullivan and Graham's cases separately in order to determine whether it should distinguish the sentence based on the age of the juvenile. It could permit the sentence to stand for individuals like Graham who commit serious offenses when they are almost a legal adult, but it could prohibit life sentences for younger offenders in their early teens.

Neither Sullivan nor Graham committed murder. There are about 100 other juveniles in the country who have received the same sentence without actually killing anyone, de la Vega says. The court could find the sentence unconstitutional for non-homicidal offenders while deeming it appropriate for juveniles who are convicted of homicides. It could also hold that the sentence is unconstitutional for both homicidal and non-homicidal offenses.

The science and psychology of juveniles could be factors in the justices' deliberations. Scientists say the brain and behavioral maturation of juveniles continues well into young adulthood, so adolescents should be entitled to less severe forms of punishment. "Compared to adults, adolescents are more susceptible to peer influence, less oriented to the future, more sensitive to short-term rewards, and more impulsive," says a study on adolescent development by Dr. Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University. "The development of the ability to stand up to peer pressure is something that happens over time. Just as people get better at walking when they are older, they get better at resisting peer influence," he says.

But should the science behind peer pressure, brain development, and adolescent behaviors be enough to get reduced sentences for juvenile offenders? "If this [scientific] theory is true, then why is it that only juveniles in our country are more inclined [than adults] to commit multiple crimes and murders? Is it something about the brain development of American juveniles or is it the theory that's wrong? Wouldn't this theory apply across the world?" asks Charles Stimson, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Burns of the National District Attorneys Association calls these scientific claims ridiculous. "An elderly woman is raped and beaten, and trying to blame it on some theory that juvenile brains are different doesn't help the victim," he says.

The landscape surrounding juvenile sentencing has drastically changed over the past few years. In 2005, the court in Roper v. Simmons held the death penalty was unconstitutional for individuals who were under 18 when they committed a crime. The court referred to international law in determining whether the juvenile death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and Amnesty International argues that the court should invoke these international standards once again in determining the constitutionality of juvenile life sentences.

In fact, the United States and Somalia are the only countries that aren't a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which seeks to protect and promote child development and bans a life sentence without parole for juveniles. "Even if we ratified the CRC, it's not clear whether it would apply to the individual states," Stimson of the Heritage Foundation says. So even if the U.S. joined the CRC that would only ban such sentences for federal crimes; each state could potentially decide whether it still wants to uphold life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

Many legal scholars predict a 5-4 decision with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote, but it's not clear which argument the court will favor. The new dynamic of the bench with the addition of Justice Sonia Sotomayor also makes predictions difficult. "One of the things to speculate about Sotomayor is that she might be more conservative than [her predecessor Justice David] Souter because of her experience as a prosecutor," says John Eastman, dean of Chapman University School of Law. Ultimately, there is no single right answer. "Whatever is cruel and unusual punishment is what five of the nine justices say it is," says Burns.