Supreme Court Weighs Juvenile Life Sentences

Should juvenile offenders face life behind bars?

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Nationwide, there are more than 2,200 juveniles serving sentences of life without parole. That figure includes dozens of children as young as 13 years old. Four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that executing anyone for a crime committed when he or she was younger than 18 is unconstitutional. On Monday, lawyers arguing on behalf of two Florida prisoners tried to convince the court that the rationale behind the death penalty decision also should extend to life sentences because they are equivalent to executions behind bars.

The court's death penalty ruling was based on two key principles: Minors are not as culpable for their crimes as adults are, and it is possible for youths to reform. The court held that their execution would therefore be "cruel and unusual punishment," which is banned by the Eighth Amendment. The same logic should be applied for Joe Sullivan and, in a separate case, Terrance Graham, lawyers contended.

At the age of 16, Graham and an accomplice robbed a restaurant, a crime for which he served a year behind bars. In 2004, at age 17, he was sentenced to life without parole after he violated the terms of his probation by committing another robbery, this time with a gun.

Joe Sullivan, meanwhile, was convicted of sexual battery against a 72-year-old womanafter committing a burglary when he was 13 years old. In the two years before this conviction, Sullivan, who is mentally disabled, had been found guilty of 17 criminal offenses, including several serious felonies. The sexual battery conviction was based on the testimony of two of his older codefendants, who then received lighter sentences. At the trial, which ended with a life sentence, Sullivan was represented by an attorney who has since been suspended from practicing law.

Legal experts say these two examples of life sentences for juveniles are particularly noteworthy. "What separates these cases from cases of life sentences for [other] children is that they received the sentences for crimes short of homicide," says Elizabeth Scott, a professor at Columbia University Law School.

Supporters of such sentences say those who commit crimes should face the full penalty, regardless of their age. "Outside of capital punishment, this court has never exempted a whole class of offenders from a particular category of punishment on the ground that it would be cruel and unusual," the National District Attorneys Association said in an amicus brief.

The arguments also could touch on one of the most politicized aspects of constitutional law—the applicability of foreign precedent. A critical component of the Eighth Amendment relies on the "evolving standards of decency" in a mature society. In the death penalty case, the court used this criterion in part to reverse earlier precedent.

At least 135 countries have expressly rejected life sentences for juveniles, according to Amnesty International. And though 10 foreign nations do allow such sentences in theory, no children are currently serving them. A United Nations treaty that forbids the imprisonment of children without parole has been signed by all countries except the United States and Somalia.

During the confirmation hearings for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, conservative senators pressed particularly hard on the question of whether judges can consider foreign jurisprudence. While foreign law could be used in considering rulings, she said, it could not be used "as a holding or a precedent." Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn disagreed, saying, "I'm not sure I agree with that on certain Eighth Amendment and 14th Amendment cases."

The conservative Heritage Foundation echoes his concerns with regard to these Florida cases the court will consider, contending that the application of "foreign sources of law to determine domestic law, in addition to being legally problematic, too often overlooks the qualitative differences between the United States and other countries."