BY Shulamit Shvartsman for Lawyers.comsm
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.