Lawyers ask court: Is life in prison for teen like a death sentence?

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is weighing whether to follow a ban on capital punishment for minor offenders with a prohibition or limits on sentencing teenagers to life in prison without parole.

In two cases argued before the court Nov. 9, the justices were asked to rule that teens’ immaturity and the potential for them to reform means they should be shielded from life imprisonment, applying the same logic that led the high court four years ago to end the death penalty for minors.

Among those urging the court to rule that such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment – barred by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution – are religious organizations and those who study the developmental differences between teens and adults.

The cases involved offenders who were 13 and 16 at the time of the crimes for which they were convicted.

In the first case, Terrence Graham, then 16, was convicted of armed burglary and assault and attempted armed robbery after he and two accomplices tried to rob a Florida restaurant in 2003. One of his accomplices hit the restaurant manager with a steel bar.

When Graham was arrested two months later, he pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to probation. A year later while still on probation, Graham was charged with a home invasion and eluding police. He pleaded guilty and admitted to additional robberies. Because he violated his probation, he was given the maximum sentence possible for the original assault charge – life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

In the second case, Joe Sullivan, also of Florida, was 13 in 1989 when he and two older teens robbed a 72-year-old woman. Later that day, Sullivan and one of his accomplices returned and beat and raped the woman.

Sullivan was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Bryan Gowdy, arguing before the court on behalf of Graham, said sentences of life without parole are immoral for adolescents because it means society has given up hope on the juvenile and believes he or she will never change or be fit to re-enter society.

He argued that the disproportionate nature of Graham’s sentence can be seen by comparing it to the typically less harsh sentences given adult defendants convicted of violent crimes such as armed burglary.

Sullivan’s attorney, Bryan Stevenson, reiterated many of Gowdy’s arguments but added that youths under age 14 should never be sentenced to life without parole.

“Sentencing a 13-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole is just as bad as a death sentence,” he said in his petitioner’s brief to the court. Such sentences also are so unusual that it’s clear the country’s jurisprudence has concluded they’re not necessary, he added.

In addressing the court, Gowdy repeatedly drew a connection to the justices’ 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons, which overturned the death penalty for people under the age of 18, judging them less responsible than adults. Gowdy said life without parole is similar to the death penalty in that it takes away hope and ignores the fact the juvenile may grow up, mature and change as an adult.

Florida’s Solicitor General Scott Makar, arguing for the state, said life without parole was used to deter other juveniles from committing the same act and should continue to be an option for the court.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in Roper, said it may be difficult to distinguish between juveniles and adults in cases that do not involve the death penalty.

“Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope (for eventual release), but an adult does not?” he asked.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the logic in Roper is that “death is reserved for the worst of the worst.” But the sentence of life without parole is not reserved for the worst of the worst, he said, so it should not be regarded as equal when it comes to granting juvenile offenders relief from it.

Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether every juvenile offender had to be given a second chance.

He said some crimes that Florida teens have been found guilty of “are so horrible that I couldn’t have imagined them if I hadn’t actually seen them.” He noted two cases that involved the rape of children.

At a background briefing Nov. 5, hosted by Georgetown Law School’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychology professor at Temple University, said research evidence shows that compared to adults, adolescents are more immature and susceptible to peer pressure.

It “doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold them accountable or that we should excuse their behavior,” he said, but teens should not be punished to the same degree as adults.

Speaker Beatriz Luna, a professor who focuses on developmental neuroscience in the psychiatry department at the University of Pittsburgh, said her studies show adolescents demonstrate a decreased ability to process errors or control their impulses.

She said adolescents’ emotional processing is still immature before the age of 18, and it is more difficult for them to understand others’ emotions.

Among dozens of organizations that weighed in on one side or another in the cases in amicus, or friend of the court, briefs, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist organizations echoed Luna’s research, saying “sentencing a juvenile to die in prison callously disregards (their) special status and diminished capacity.”

“Juveniles are still developing and maturing; they do not grasp the full consequences of their actions, and therefore are less morally culpable for their conduct and less susceptible to deterrents,” it added.

One signer of that brief, Sister JoAnne Talarico, a member of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary who helped form the Iowa Coalition to Oppose Life Without the Possibility of Parole for Youth, told Catholic News Service Nov. 11 that sometimes juveniles “do commit horrendous crimes,” but said life without parole is too harsh and rehabilitation is a better option.

The cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, will be decided before the end of the Supreme Court term in the spring.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.