High Court Weighs Life Terms For Minors Is it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to send a juvenile away to prison for life, without the possibility of parole, for a non-homicide crime? The Supreme Court on Monday will examine two cases, including that of Joe Sullivan, who was convicted of rape when he was 13 years old.
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High Court Weighs Life Terms For Minors

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High Court Weighs Life Terms For Minors


High Court Weighs Life Terms For Minors

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The Supreme Court has already struck down the death penalty for juveniles, and now it considers the alternative. Today, the court hears two cases from Florida - both involve men who were teenagers at the time of their crimes. Neither committed murder. Both teenagers were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The question now is whether this amounts to cruel and unusual punishment -whether a life sentence, like the death penalty, is considered the wrong punishment for young people. Heres NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Joe Sullivan was 13 years old when he was convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman. Two older defendants whod broken into the woman's house with Joe fingered their younger accomplice for the rape, and they got lesser sentences. Joe had a long record of misdemeanors, from stealing a bike to burglary. This, however, was his first felony, and the judge, declaring that the boy before him was beyond help, sentenced him to life in prison without parole.

Terrance Graham was 16 when he pleaded guilty to attempted robbery of a restaurant in which one of his accomplices hit the restaurant manager over the head with a steel pipe. Graham served one year in jail, then was released on probation. Six months later he was arrested fleeing the scene of an armed home invasion robbery.

The judge revoked his probation, but rejected the four-year prison sentence recommended by the Department of Corrections and instead sentenced Graham, by then 17, to life in prison without parole. If I can't do anything to help you, said the judge, then I have to protect the community from your actions.

Through the lens of these two cases, the U.S. Supreme Court is today examining the constitutionality of juvenile life terms where no death occurs. Its fitting that both cases are from Florida. Nationally, of the 109 juveniles serving life terms for non-homicide offenses, 70 percent are in the Sunshine State.

Four years ago, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles, the justices said that offenders under 18 are substantially less culpable. Because of their youth and immaturity, the court said, juveniles are far more subject to peer pressure, have less impulse control and less ability to see the consequences of their actions. But the court also said that death is different from any other punishment.

Bryan Stevenson, who represents Joe Sullivan, concedes that there is a difference between the death penalty and life without parole. But he says that a life term is different from other prison sentences because it denies the prisoner any hope for a future.

Mr. BRYAN STEVENSON (Attorney for Joe Sullivan): They're just two different kinds of death sentences. One is death by execution, the other death by incarceration.

TOTENBERG: He notes that the law generally treats 13 and 14-year-olds as so immature that they are not allowed to drive, to marry and even in some states, to get a tattoo. And he says that juveniles are particularly unable to defend themselves. His client, who maintained his innocence, was represented by a lawyer who filed no appeals and was later disbarred.

Nineteen states, led by Louisiana, have filed a brief supporting life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases. Louisiana Attorney General James Buddy Caldwell.

Mr. JAMES BUDDY CALDWELL (Attorney General, Louisiana): I disagree that the juvenile crimes are any less culpable than adult crimes. These are young criminals. That's what they are, and the ones who are getting these sentences are the worst of those.

TOTENBERG: Not so, says lawyer Bryan Gowdy, who represents Terrance Graham. He says Graham's life without parole sentence for the restaurant robbery is unconstitutionally disproportionate.

Mr. BRYAN GOWDY (Lawyer, Terrance Graham): This sentence is more than two times greater than what Florida is sentencing the average murderer to.

TOTENBERG: But Florida and its supporters say these are judgments that should be left to the states. Florida imposed its tough regime of life sentences to combat the crime wave in the 1990s, and the state says the tougher penalties have served as a deterrent. Again, Louisiana Attorney General Caldwell.

Mr. CALDWELL: Thats where the expertise is, not sitting in a court in Washington, D.C. in that building to decide what is best for each single state.

TOTENBERG: Juvenile advocate Stevenson, however, counters that no state legislature has expressly authorized sentences of life without parole for 13 or 14-year-olds. What Florida did was to make it easier to try youngsters as adults, and at the same time, the state also increased the number of non-homicide crimes for which an adult can be sentenced to life without parole.

Mr. STEVENSON: Florida has no minimum age for trying a child as an adult. We could be talking about a six-year-old or a ten-year-old or a 12-year-old, and we think this is an instance where the court has to step in.

TOTENBERG: The subtext of these cases is the question of whether rehabilitation is possible or even desirable for juvenile repeat offenders, a subject about which even victims' rights organizations disagree. Shannon Goessling represents 33 victims' rights organizations.

Ms. SHANNON GOESSLING: This system is not set up for rehabilitation. It is set up for retribution and consequences and to allow defendants, whether 13 or 17, to be released after they commit these heinous crimes, is an injustice to the victims who have survived.

TOTENBERG: That view is rejected by groups as diverse as the American Medical Association and Amnesty International. Nobody is arguing that juveniles who commit serious crimes should be released quickly, but closing the prison door forever on a teenager, they argue, is something else.

Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, past president of the Society for Research on Adolescence, acknowledges that there are some kids who are rotten and dangerous.

Professor LAURENCE STEINBERG (Psychology, Temple University): The problem is that we're very bad about picking them out. And most adolescents who do harmful things when they are teenagers grow up to be law-abiding adults.

TOTENBERG: There is no science, he says, thats able to identify which juveniles can be rehabilitated and which can't.

Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson is among a group of one-time juvenile offenders who are urging the court to do away with the life-without-parole punishment for juveniles. Simpson, by his own account, raised hell as a teenager, went around town shooting off a gun, starting fires, destroyed property, even hit a policeman. When kids commit serious crimes, he says

Former Senator ALAN SIMPSON (Republican, Wyoming): You don't salt them away for life. You pick them out of there at the age of 30 or 40 and say, have you learned to read? What have you done in here? Are you the assistant librarian? You make the best license plates? What are you doing? If they just grunt, throw them in there for the rest of their lives. But for God's sake, give a guy a chance if he's trying to do something different and sort them out case by case.

TOTENBERG: Lawyer Bryan Stevenson says his client, Joe Sullivan, is just such a candidate. Twenty years into his life term, hes 33, confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. Intellectually impaired from childhood, he has nonetheless learned to read.

Shannon Goessling of the victims' rights organizations supporting life terms is unswayed.

Ms. GOESSLING: They are recidivists. They have had every opportunity to avoid being in prison for the rest of their lives. They knew the consequences of their conduct.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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