There are just over 100 people in the world serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles in which no one was killed. All are in the United States.
On Monday, November 9, the Supreme Court heard appeals from two such juvenile offenders: Sullivan, who raped a woman when he was 13, and Graham, who committed armed burglary at 16.
Sullivan was sentenced to life without parole in 1989, when he was just 13, after a questionable sexual battery conviction. His two older accomplices testified against the younger, mentally impaired boy. They received short sentences, one of them as a juvenile.
The case of Graham has similar contours. Graham, a learning disabled child, born to crack-addicted parents, was on probation in connection with a burglary committed when he was 16 when he participated in a home invasion. He, too, had older accomplices. He was never convicted of the actual crime but was given life without parole for violating the conditions of his probation.
These were two very troubled children in need of adult supervision and perhaps even time behind bars. But it is insupportable to conclude, as the courts did, that children who committed crimes when they were so young were beyond rehabilitation. The laws under which they were convicted violate current human rights standards and the Constitution.
The Supreme Court must keep the international standard in mind when it hears arguments in these matters. The petitioners in both argue that sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The court came down on the right side of this issue in 2005 when it barred the execution of juvenile offenders by a vote of 5 to 4, reasoning that people under 18 are immature, irresponsible, susceptible to peer pressure and often capable of change. The Court also stated that executing 16- and 17-year-olds violated the Eighth Amendment, conflicted with “evolving standards of decendy” and isolated the United States from the rest of the world.
Judges and legislators agree that execution of juvenile offenders is a harsh punishment but they are deeply divided about when sentences of life without the possibility of release are warranted.
“Sometimes a 15-year-old has a tremendous appreciation for right and wrong,” said State Representative William D. Snyder. “I think it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to say that it was patently illegal or improper to send a youthful offender to life without parole. At a certain point, juveniles cross the line, and they have to be treated as adults and punished as adults.”
A retired appeals court judge, John R. Blue, did not see it that way. “To lock them up forever seems a little barbaric to me,” Judge Blue said. “You ought to leave them some hope.”
However, this practice is practically troubling because it is arbitrary. Children who commit nonviolent crimes like theft and burglary are just as likely to be shipped off to adult court as children who commit serious violent crimes. Even worse, the process is racially freighted, with black and Latino children more likely to be sent to adult courts than white children who commit comparable crimes.
A more humane approach is needed to allow these children the chance to become productive citizens. Imprisoning a child for life seems barbarous. In reality, all it does is sweep the problem under the rug – out of sight, out of mind. It is a disturbing policy seeking a “tough on crime” stance without regard to what it does to the children and their families. There are other ways to deter crime. Juveniles deserve the right to rehabilitate. There is a reason why juvenile courts were established. While it is no secret that resources are scarce, pushing these children into adult courts because of a lack of money and availability of services is not the answer. These juveniles deserve an opportunity to rehabilitate.