Are life sentences for 13 year olds cruel and unusual punishment?

By Frank James

Is it constitutional to sentence a juvenile offender who commits an offense at age 13 to life in prison without the possibility of parole?

That’s the question facing the U.S. Supreme Court this term and it’s a riveting one. On one hand, a heinous crime is still a terrible crime, regardless of the age of the offender.

But a 13-year old is still a child. And it is arguably a cruel and unusual punishment to subject someone to life in prison without parole for a crime committed when he was a child.

The Equal Justice Initiative has a compelling way to frame these cases. It says 13- and 14-year olds are being sentenced to death in prison.

It’s point: the U.S. Supreme Court may have said executing people for crimes they committed as juveniles is unconstitutional. But these sentences are in their own way death sentences, according to EJI which says there are 73 individuals in the U.S. who are serving “death in prison” sentences.

The cases the Supreme Court will be deciding is Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Sullivan.

Sullivan was convicted of raping a 72-year old woman when he was 13 and of burglary as well. Graham was convicted of violating parole by conducting a strong-armed robbery in which he held the victim at gunpoint.

Among those supporting Sullivan, who is now 33, are former Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and the actor Charles Dutton, both of whom were youthful offenders, with Dutton convicted of manslaughter.

In a friend of the court brief, Dutton is quoted as saying:

“I just talked in Florida to some kids with that sentence. It was just dawning on them after ten or twelve years that their lives were over. They were kids and now they’re finished. There’s a heart-wrenching sadness on their faces, and you can see the fight is out of them. If they were given a second chance, they’d be changed human beings.”

“As long as it’s a young mind,” he says, “they’re salvageable. At those tender ages, the mind is still pliable and can be shaped. It’s not too late.”