Juvenile Life Sentences Go to High Court by Joan Biskupic

Posted: December 12, 2009 in News and politics
Juvenile life sentences go to high court

By Joan Biskupic

There are 111 young offenders in the U.S. who have no possibilityof parole for non-lethal crimes

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 of 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 younger than 18 when he committed his crimes. Yet Graham is one of an estimated 111 people nationwide serving life-without-parole sentences for juvenile 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 could influence juvenile sentencing trends nationwide. In arguments today, 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. Among those backing Graham and Sullivan are 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 attorneys group says that many "already-hardened" youths commit heinous assaults knowing "the wrongfulness of their actions."

The question is whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prevents confining a teen for life without a chance of parole. The cases test whether the court should extend the rationale of a 2005 decision that prohibited states from executing anyone who committed his crime when 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.

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.

The question before the justices is narrow, centering only on juvenile defendants who committed crimes in which no death occurred. 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," New York University law professor Randy Hertz says.

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.

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.

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 … and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry," he says. He dismisses studies that conclude young offenders are not as blameworthy as adults.

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.

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, Steinberg says.

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 the 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. They say studies during the past decade have "provided an understanding of the biological underpinnings for why adolescents act the way they do." Brain imaging studies show why adolescents might be prone to riskier behavior than adults.

Only two defendants who committed their crimes at age 13 � Sullivan and another Florida man � are serving life without parole. Sullivan’s case 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 Florida appeals 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 Supreme Court’s reasoning was based largely on its view that the death penalty is different from all other punishments.

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

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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