The US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile offender to death. On Monday, the high court takes up two cases that seek to extend that same constitutional reasoning to the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without any possibility of parole.
The essence of their argument is that adolescents who commit crimes are still developing as human beings and their characters are still largely unformed. It is wrong to write them off as hopeless, to lock them up and throw away the key, these advocates say.
On November 8, the Supreme Court heard appeals for two juvenile offenders serving life-in-prison terms in Florida. Neither involved homicide. Joe Sullivan burglarized and raped a 72-year-old woman when he was 13. Terrance Graham committed armed burglary at 16. Both were repeat offenders.
Lawyers for the youthful offenders argued that life in prison for juveniles not convicted of homicide violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
There are 109 juvenile offenders serving life without parole for nonhomicide crimes. All are in the US, 77 are in Florida.
Nineteen states, led by Louisiana, have filed a brief supporting life sentences without parole in nonhomicide cases citing that teenagers have a clear appreciation of right and wrong.
The court is divided on the matter, as expressed by comments by Justice Stephen Breyer during the oral arguments:
“As a general matter, human beings are uncertain about how much moral responsibility to assign to individuals in a particular category. Is it appropriate to sentence someone to life in prison without parole at the age of 10? No. Eleven? No. Seventeen? Yeah, maybe. We are in an area of ambiguity, what justifies taking a person’s whole life away.”