We’ve all done something bad. But imagine doing something bad, so bad that you go to jail for the rest of your life, with no chance of parole. Would this be considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects us from “cruel and unusual punishment”?
That is the heart of the issue of the Supreme Court cases Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. In both cases, the juveniles were found guilty of offenses in which no one was killed, and they received life sentences without the chance of release. These two are among the over one hundred cases across the country in which a juvenile was sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses.
In Sullivan, Joe Sullivan was sent away for life for raping an elderly woman when he was 13. The case of Graham focuses on Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. In both cases, the judge ruled against the advice of the Department of Corrections and gave the stiffest punishment allowable by law.
In Sullivan, the judge said that he was “beyond help,” and the judge who sentenced Graham to life without parole stated during sentencing: “If I can’t do anything to help you, then I have to . . . protect the community from your actions.”
These cases come after the 2005 Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, where the court ruled 5 to 4 that it is unconstitutional to execute anyone convicted of a crime when he or she was a juvenile.
Now the issue is whether letting a juvenile spend the rest of his or her life in prison is constitutional. Furthermore, the issue of whether prisons are meant to rehabilitate criminals or keep them away from society is being raised.
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. “They’re just two different kinds of death sentences,” he said before the court. “One is death by execution, the other death by incarceration.”
Nineteen states, including Louisiana, have filed a brief supporting life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases. “I disagree that the juvenile crimes are any less culpable than the adult crimes,” said Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell in an NPR interview. “These are young criminals. That’s what they are, and the ones who are getting these sentences are the worst of those.”
The court seemed divided on the issue. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said, “The confusion and uncertainty about the moral responsibility of a 13-year-old is such that it is a cruel thing to do to remove from that individual his entire life. You see, we are at the extreme.”
Justice Samuel Alito disagreed with Breyer, remarking, “You are saying that, no matter what this person does, commits the most horrible series of non-homicide offenses that you can imagine, a whole series of brutal rapes, assaults that render the victim paraplegic but not dead, no matter what, the person is sentenced, shows no remorse whatsoever, the worst case you can possibly imagine, that person must at some point be made eligible for parole?”
In a victory for the rights for juveniles, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that a sentence of life without parole is unconstitutional for anyone under 18. The majority opinion, which follows a 2005 ruling that executing minors is unconstitutional, said the punishment must be interpreted in light of the country’s “evolving standards of decency.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, went on to say, “By denying the defendant the right to enter the community, the state makes an irrevocable judgment about that person’s value and place in society.” Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote a dissenting opinion, said that interpreting the Eighth Amendment with the changing societal standards is “entirely the court’s creation.” He argued that the “question of what acts are ‘deserving’ of what punishments is bound so tightly with questions of morality and social conditions as to make it, almost by definition, a question for legislative resolution.”
Please let me hear from you on what you think about this issue. I have two young adults sentenced to life one in Maryland and one in California. I lost my daughter at the age of 18 and my son at the age of 19 and it haunts me every day. I can’t Imagine losing a younger child at the age of 13 to 14 years old.