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High court justices to ponder life imprisonment for juveniles

High court justices to ponder life imprisonment for juveniles

Joe Sullivan, 31 when this photo was taken was sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was 13 for rape in 1989.

WASHINGTON — Terrance Jamar Graham was 16 in 2003, when he and two accomplices broke into a Jacksonville restaurant and tried to rob the place. He pleaded guilty and got three years’ probation on the condition he stay out of trouble.

A year later, Graham and another pair of accomplices forced their way into an apartment and robbed two men. That landed him in prison for life, without parole.

The sentence was unusually stiff for someone who was under 18 when he committed his crimes. Yet Graham is one of an estimated 111 youths nationwide serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes other than murder — a group of juvenile offenders with no chance to make a case for parole and rehabilitation.

Although the number of young offenders imprisoned for life is small, juvenile law experts say their plight gives a face to a larger national debate over the wisdom of tough juvenile sentences in various circumstances. Now the Supreme Court is entering the debate — and will potentially influence juvenile sentencing trends nationwide. In arguments to be held Monday, the justices will use Graham’s case and that of Joe Sullivan, who was 13 when he raped an elderly woman in 1989, to decide whether life-without-parole sentences for young criminals are unconstitutionally harsh.

Juvenile-justice experts siding with Graham and Sullivan, such as the Juvenile Law Center’s Marsha Levick, say states went overboard in devising punishments for minors as part of the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1980s.

“These cases represent an opportunity for us as a society, through our laws and how the Supreme Court interprets them, to acknowledge the obvious and profound differences between kids and adults,” Levick says.

Florida and 19 other states counter that such laws effectively deter juvenile offenses. Victims’ rights advocates, including the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, say the horror of a crime is not lessened by the youthfulness of a perpetrator.

The paired cases have drawn an array of “friend of the court” filings. Several backing Graham and Sullivan are from prominent people who got in trouble during their youth and straightened up, such as actor Charles Dutton — convicted of manslaughter after he was involved in a fatal knife fight — and former U.S. senator Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who as a teenager helped set a fire at an abandoned war reclamation structure in Wyoming.

On Florida’s side are the 19 states and groups such as the National District Attorneys Association. The district attorneys group emphasizes in its brief that many “already-hardened” youths commit heinous assaults “with full knowledge of the wrongfulness of their actions.”

The question at the high court is whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prevents confining a teenager for life without a chance of parole. The Florida cases specifically test whether the court should extend the rationale of a 2005 ruling in which it prohibited states from executing anyone who committed his crime when he was under age 18.

In that 5-4 decision scaling back capital punishment, the court’s majority said offenders under 18 are less responsible for their crimes than adults, partly because they are less mature and more vulnerable to peer pressure. “The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Roper v. Simmons. “It is the … age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest.”

Law professors who specialize in juvenile justice, such as Columbia University‘s Elizabeth Scott, say that studies since that ruling have further documented the physical and psychological differences between adult and juvenile criminals. She says research on adolescent brain development reinforces arguments that minors are less responsible for their actions and that harsh sentences are unjustified.

The question before the justices is narrow, centering only on juvenile defendants who committed crimes in which no death occurred — such as those other than murder or manslaughter. Yet, by simply agreeing to hear the Florida appeals, the high court has put a spotlight on juvenile sentencing.

“These two cases may force state legislatures to confront the legacy of their policies over the past three decades,” says New York University law professor Randy Hertz, who adds that many legislators are reluctant for political reasons to ease up on sentences.

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell counters in a brief on behalf of the states backing Florida that states have rightly decided some crimes are so “morally reprehensible, so damaging to the victims … that the law’s second most severe sentence should be available” even for offenders under 18.

The Florida difference

An estimated 2,570 juvenile defendants in the United States are serving life-without-parole sentences — nearly all for homicide-related crimes. Of the 111 juvenile defendants who committed lesser offenses, such as Graham and Sullivan, 77 are in Florida prisons.

“Florida stands nearly alone in its punishment of juveniles,” says Graham’s attorney, Bryan Gowdy. Florida is one of just six states known to be incarcerating such offenders for life. The others, according to a 2009 report by the Florida State University’s Public Law Center, are Louisiana (with 17); Iowa (with six); Mississippi (with five); California (with four) and Nebraska and South Carolina (one each).

Florida is rare among states in letting first-time juvenile offenders be sentenced to life imprisonment for armed burglary or battery. It also gives prosecutors great latitude to transfer a juvenile 14 or older to adult court.

“I don’t think that anyone in Florida intended for us to be the leader in this area,” Gowdy says. “This is the unintended consequences of a ‘let’s get tough on juvenile crime’ attitude. In Florida, it has gone to the extreme limit. But obviously it’s happening in other states, too.”

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum says in his brief that the state’s juvenile sentences arose partly from a jump in juvenile crime in the 1990s. “Florida’s problem was particularly dire, compromising the safety of residents, visitors, and international tourists, and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry,” he says.

McCollum dismisses studies that conclude young offenders are not as blameworthy as adults. “That juveniles as a class generally are less developed mentally than adults is (not) a novel idea …,” he says. “Our society has accounted for juvenile status in virtually every aspect of our laws and traditions.”

State data show the juvenile crime rate has been in flux since Florida approved tougher sentences for juveniles. There are no comprehensive studies on how often juveniles commit other crimes after they are released compared with adults, says Temple University’s Laurence Steinberg, an expert in adolescent development and juvenile justice.

History behind laws

For most of the 20th century, defendants under age 18 were tried and sentenced under different laws than adults. That changed during the 1980s and 1990s, says Steinberg, whose work is cited by attorneys for Graham and Sullivan.

The new emphasis on harsher punishment for juveniles means that more young offenders were tried as adults and more received stiffer sentences. The proliferation of “life without parole” sentences — for adults and juveniles — was part of that pattern.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups contend that the United States is alone in allowing youths under 18 to be sentenced to life without parole. They have urged the justices to look to international norms, as the justices did when they struck down capital punishment for juveniles.

The American Medical Association and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have entered the Florida cases to highlight new scientific evidence about the adolescent brain.

“The adolescent’s mind works differently from ours. Parents know it. This court has said it. Legislatures all over the world have presumed it for decades or more,” the groups say in their filing, in support of neither side. “And scientific evidence now sheds light on how and why adolescent behavior differs from adult behavior.”

They say studies during the past decade have “provided an understanding of the biological underpinnings for why adolescents act the way they do.” For example, brain imaging studies find that adolescents exhibit more neural activity than adults in areas of the brain that promote risky behavior.

Bryan Stevenson, of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, representing Sullivan, offers a more down-to-earth comparison in his brief. “Like a car with a powerful accelerator but weak brakes, a young teenager’s brain is fully developed in the part responsible for emotional arousal and sensitivity to peer pressure (the gas pedal), but the parts in the frontal lobes that control impulses and allow long-term thinking, planning, and resistance to peer pressure (the brake) are still developing.”

Only two defendants who committed their crimes at age 13 — Sullivan and another Florida man — are serving life without parole. Stevenson argues that younger offenders, particularly, merit leniency. Sullivan’s case, however, is procedurally more complicated than that of Graham, the older teen at the time of the crime, because Sullivan was sentenced nearly 20 years ago.

Florida state officials, represented by McCollum, say Sullivan is long past the deadline for challenging his sentence. A lower Florida court threw out Sullivan’s case without considering the merits of his constitutional claim.

Sentence based on facts

When a Florida appeals court did address the merits of Graham’s claim, it went to the heart of the question now before the Supreme Court.

The state court spurned arguments that justices’ reasoning in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons should apply to his sentence of life without parole. The Florida court ruled in 2008 that the usual constitutional test of whether a sentence is “grossly disproportionate” to the crime depends on the facts of each case. In Graham’s case, the court noted he broke parole and during the home-invasion robbery had held a gun to the head of one of the victims.

Seeking to preserve Graham’s sentence, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers says the Supreme Court would be engaging “in a callous bait-and-switch” if it applied the rationale of Roper v. Simmons to the new disputes. The group argues that the high court’s reasoning was based largely on its view that the death penalty is different from all other punishments.

It adds the judges and legislatures that have put life-without-parole in place “understand that violent crimes are no less traumatizing to victims because the offenders are underage.”

In his appeal, Gowdy says Graham, now 22, got the harshest sentence possible for a juvenile, which is plainly disproportionate to his crime.

“We’re not saying the states can’t send juveniles away for a long time,” Gowdy said in an interview. “We’re just asking for an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed.”

The judge who sentenced Graham to life without parole told him he had abused the confidence the system gave him when he violated probation.

“Given your escalating pattern of criminal conduct,” the judge said, “it is apparent … that you have decided that this is the way you are going to live your life and that the only thing I can do now is to try to protect the community from your actions.”



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  1. Lu
    November 30th, 2009 15:18

    I am teaching the kids in juvie about this today… One of my clients has a little brother who is 11 and they’re going to “place” him soon somewhere residential… ELEVEN. Because he doesn’t wanna go to school. No kids want to go to school! What kind of country locks up 11 year olds?


  2. michelle gillead lewis
    November 25th, 2009 10:49

    my son is serving a life sentence in pennsylvania. i am a retired nyc correction officer living in nyc. the criminal justice system is cruel and unjust in america, i known that from both sides.


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