In May 2010, in a much anticipated decision, the US Supreme Court answered the question, "Can we send juveniles to jail for life?" And the answer is: Sometimes. The Court ruled that juvenile offenders who've been convicted of crimes involving the killing of another person may be sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
As for other juvenile offenders convicted of less serious crimes, the Court ruled that sentences of life without parole violated their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishments. The decision is in line with prior Court decisions barring the death sentence for juvenile offenders.
The US Supreme Court recently began its term and is facing an important and difficult question: Should we eliminate life sentences for juvenile offenders who didn't kill anyone?
The Juvenile Offenders
The issue will be heard in reference to two separate cases involving minors.
First, Joe Sullivan was 13 years old when he and two older boys broke into a home and robbed and raped an elderly woman. In 1989, Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.
The second minor offender is Terrance Graham, a 16 year-old who robbed a restaurant with two others. A year later, he was arrested again for breaking into a home. A judge in Florida decided that Terrance was "incorrigible" and in 2005 sentenced him to a life term with no parole.
Life without parole means that these minors will be serving the rest of their life in jail with no chance for release. They will essentially die in prison.
Significantly, the minors did not kill anyone in either of these cases.
Imprisoning a Minor
These cases represent a phenomenon unique to America: imprisoning minors until they die even when their crime does not involve murder. According to Amnesty International, "The United States is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles."
The lawyers for the two minors fighting the convictions aren't arguing that the boys don't need to go to jail. However, they claim that these sentences are unconstitutional.
The Eighth Amendment
The Supreme Court will have to address whether life in prison without parole for minors constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution.
The Eighth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights and prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments. The cruel and unusual punishments clause also applies to states.
Punishments that are deemed cruel and unusual were defined in 1972 in a famous case called Furman v. Georgia. There, the Supreme Court set out four factors to determine whether a particular punishment is cruel and unusual:
- If the penalty is out of proportion to the offense committed
- If the punishment is arbitrarily handed out
- A punishment that is clearly and totally rejected in society (ex. torture)
Many people have voiced their opposition to sending minors to jail for life. They argue that while children can and do sometimes commit terrible crimes, they can only be held accountable in a manner that reflects their special capacity for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is one goal when society sends someone to jail. By sending children to jail for life, society ignores their special status and does not give them the opportunity to rehabilitate.
Also, many laws recognize that children can be irresponsible. For example, 18 is the minimum age to get married in many states, to serve on a jury and to purchase cigarettes. However, in most states and under federal law, children who commit crimes are considered adults for criminal justice purposes.
Society and the law recognize that children are a particularly vulnerable group that is entitled to special care and protection because children are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally. States should focus on rehabilitation of children and life in prison should be a last resort. Some argue that while jail may be proper for youth convicted of very serious crimes such as murder, a life-sentence without the possibility of parole is never appropriate for youth offenders when they didn't kill anyone.
On the other hand, there is an argument that life sentences are proper in violent crimes because these teens are a danger to society. Putting them away not only punishes them, but protects them and society from additional crimes.
Because there is a new justice on the Supreme Court, the ultimate decision is hard to predict. Many are curious to see how Justice Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, will decide. It's also unknown whether she will "align herself with the court's tough-on-crime conservatives or join with its liberals to strike down prison policies perceived as going too far."
The cases may turn out to be landmark cases if the Supreme Court decides to use them to extend Eighth Amendment protections to juvenile offenders who are convicted and punished as adults. Currently, the law already treats minors differently when it comes to the death penalty. After this case, perhaps life sentences will be struck down as well.
This case is significant because there are many minors serving life sentences. Of the 2,500 US prisoners currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors, 109 were sentenced for crimes that did not involve murder. The court's decisions will impact those 109 juvenile offenders and many more future offenders. The case comes up in November. Stay tuned to Lawyers.com for updates on the decision.
1 David G. Savage, Supreme Court to Consider Juvenile 'lifers', Los Angeles Times, Sept. 28, 2009, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-court-preview28-2009sep28,0,1454652.story, accessed Oct. 12, 2009.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If my minor child has been detained on juvenile charges, what can I do if the prosecution wants my child charged as an adult?
- If a young person is convicted and imprisoned for a crime committed as a minor, is there any way to influence what type of correctional facility he's placed in?
- What kind of flexibility is there in the law for minors and young adults who do commit serious crimes, but have never been in trouble with the law, for example, stupid decisions lead to serious prison time - can anything be done to minimized the severity of the punishment?