Major Supreme Court Ruling: Kids Who Didn't Kill Anyone Should Not Have to Die in Prison

by Liliana Segura

Children who commit crimes other than murder can no longer face a sentence of life without parole, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in a highly anticipated decision that civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson calls “an incredibly important win for kids who’ve been condemned to die in prison.”

Stevenson represents Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) when he was just 14 years old. Sullivan, one of 77 prisoners in Florida serving LWOP for non-homicide crimes committed before the age of 18, was the defendant in one of two related cases before the court. His case, Sullivan v. Florida, was “dismissed as improvidently granted” given the ruling in the other case, Graham v. Florida, which bluntly held that “the Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.”

Read more at AlterNet…

They're Just Kids

By Emily Bazelon

Appearing before the Supreme Court, a lawyer with a client on death row will almost always use the “death is different” argument—that, because capital punishment is irrevocable, people sentenced to die deserve extra protection from the law. After today, thanks to a new Supreme Court decision, lawyers with clients under 18 sentenced to life without parole—and surely other harsh punishments—will argue that juveniles are different, too.

In a majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled Monday that under the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment, states may no longer sentence juveniles to life without parole. The decision came in the case of Terrance Graham, who was already serving probation for robbery when, at age 17, he went into a house with two 20-year-old men and robbed a man at gunpoint. The court’s 6-to-3 decision makes it seem as if striking down the sentence of life without parole—for Graham and all the offenders like him—was relatively easy. With Kennedy, at first glance, is Chief Justice John Roberts, along with the court’s four liberal-moderates: Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and John Paul Stevens.


Teen felons need chance for parole

By Murray Light

Does it make any sense for a judge to sentence a juvenile to life imprisonment and then add the caveat that the youngster shall not have the possibility of parole so long as he or she is alive?

There are those who say the judge who makes this a part of his sentencing of a juvenile is in violation of the Eighth Amendment that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. They point to the 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons in which the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles, and say that the logic for that decision should extend to life imprisonment without parole as well.

The Supreme Court currently has before it two cases involving juveniles and must decide whether life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. A sentence of life without the possibility of parole is a judgment that an offender will never be fit to return to civil society no matter how long he or she lives.

There are those who say that this punishment is proper for adults who have committed terrible crimes but not for juveniles. They make the case that the court in the Roper case emphasized the immaturity of juveniles even at age 17, a point that finds growing support in brain science.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was the dominant court voice in the Roper case and who wrote for the court majority in its opinion, is likely to be assigned the role of writing the opinion in the two pending court cases. Since the ruling in the Roper case, research on brain behavior of juveniles strongly indicates that they are less mature than adults. This should be important in deciding whether that immaturity justified an exclusion from the sentence of life without parole. It is interesting to note that the two pending cases awaiting final determination by the court are quite different. In one case, the defendant was sentenced to life without parole for a probation violation involving a house break-in at the age of 17. In the other case, the defendant was convicted of sexual assault at the age of 13. It is difficult to understand how the two cases, so differing in severity, could be linked. Neither one on the face of it appears serious enough to justify the original sentences.

I would have to say that life without parole is never a fair sentence for a juvenile, although I do believe that teenagers must be held accountable and punished for their misdeeds. One cannot overlook another factor that has come to the forefront since the Roper case. Recent studies by very reliable groups now indicate that juveniles who commit crimes, including very serious offenses, grow up to be law-abiding adults and that it is impossible to predict which juvenile offenders will become criminals in their adult lives.

Hopefully, Chief Justice John Roberts will assign Kennedy to write the opinion of the court in these two important but disparate cases. Currently there are 2,574 juveniles serving life without parole. It is a statistic we cannot be proud of.

Now, one final but important thought on this subject. It would be worthwhile for a body of lawmakers, with judicial backgrounds, to be named to review each of the 2,574 cases to determine if these juveniles now incarcerated for life have been placed there for the right reasons. I am certain many could or should be released from prison.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

Line Drawn in One Case Dissolves in Another

By Adam Liptak

The law is made up of rules and standards.

Here is an example of a rule, established by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons in 2005: If you commit murder even hours before your 18th birthday, you cannot be put to death for your crime. The same killing a few hours later may be a capital offense. The court drew a bright-line rule at 18.

Here is an example of a standard, one proposed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. this month at Supreme Court arguments over whether juvenile offenders may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole: Why not, the chief justice asked, interpret the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to require sentencing judges to consider the defendant’s age on a case-by-case basis?

“If you do have a case where it’s the 17-year-old who is one week shy of his 18th birthday and it is the most grievous crime spree you can imagine, you can determine that in that case life without parole may not be disproportionate,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “If it’s a less grievous crime and there is, for example, a younger defendant involved, then in that case maybe it is disproportionate.”

The lawyers in the two cases the court heard — one involving a rape committed by a 13-year-old, the other an armed burglary by a 16-year-old — had at least two answers to the chief justice’s proposal. One was that it is too soon to tell at sentencing whether unformed teenagers will later change for the better. The other was that states already take age into account but do so in very different ways.

According to a report from researchers at Florida State University, just two states, Florida and Louisiana, have imprisoned 94 of the nation’s roughly 110 juvenile offenders sentenced to die in prison for crimes in which no one was killed.

But there is a third possible retort, one that draws on the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia barring the execution of the mentally retarded. That sounds like a rule, in that it made an entire class of people categorically ineligible for the death penalty. But it turns out to be a standard.

Proving age is pretty straightforward, and inmates who were under 18 when they committed the crimes that sent them to death row promptly had their sentences commuted after the court’s decision in Roper. The Atkins decision, on the other hand, “has spawned extensive, intricate and bitterly contested litigation,” Carol S. Steiker and Jordan M. Steiker wrote in the DePaul Law Review last year.

The Supreme Court in Atkins said mental retardation requires proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low IQ scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and that both conditions were present before age 18. The court said IQ scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate retardation.

How has this standard been applied in practice?

A new study from three law professors at Cornell, one that resonates with potential lessons for juvenile life without parole, shows that states making case-by-case determinations have taken wildly different approaches.

The study, conducted by John H. Blume, Sheri Lynn Johnson and Christopher Seeds, tried to collect all determinations concerning retardation in capital cases in the six years after Atkins, finding 234. That means about 7 percent of the nation’s roughly 3,200 death row inmates have claimed to be mentally retarded.

Nationwide, the claims have succeeded about 38 percent of the time. But state success rates vary widely.

North Carolina courts heard 21 Atkins claims and ruled in the inmate’s favor 17 times. Alabama courts heard 26 claims and ruled for the inmate 3 times.

Recall that the Supreme Court said an IQ of “approximately 70” should usually satisfy the first part of the test. In Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, four inmates with IQ scores of 66 and 67 were held not to be retarded. But in Pennsylvania, an inmate whose score ranged from 70 to 75 won an Atkins claim. In California, a score of 84 did the trick.

Professor Johnson said there was a lesson here.

“If you look at Atkins, which is supposed to be a categorical rule but has some play in the definitions, you get enormous pushback from the states that don’t want to do it,” she said. Were the court to adopt Chief Justice Roberts’s approach for juvenile life without parole, she added, “the problem of Atkins’s application would be greatly magnified.”

Yet there is an obvious appeal to the chief justice’s suggestion.

“If you go down on a case-by-case basis, there are no line-drawing problems,” he said at the arguments this month. “You just simply say age has to be considered as a matter of the Eighth Amendment.”

Justice Antonin Scalia objected. He had dissented in Atkins and Roper, and he was not brimming with sympathy for the two juvenile offenders in the cases before the court.

His problem with Chief Justice Roberts’s proposal was grounded in a preference for easily applied binary rules over mushy standards that give judges too much power.

“And then we apply a totality-of-the-circumstances test,” Justice Scalia said dismissively of the chief justice’s proposal, “which means, ‘whatever seems like a good idea.’ ”

Politicians Saved At All Costs

By Issac Bailey

Gov. Mark Sanford must need to get caught on FBI surveillance video in a hotel room smoking crack cocaine with a prostitute (like former D.C. mayor Marion Barry) before some state officials will think he should no longer be serving.

Or maybe finding $90,000 in cold hard cash in his freezer from a bribe (like former Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana) would do the trick for state leaders. Those same state leaders are the reason why South Carolina has become the worst in the nation for sentencing children to long, mandatory prison sentences.

The S.C. General Assembly didn’t find it necessary to even censure a local state representative who faced criminal charges after a nasty domestic violence incident in which he used a string of racial epithets and threatened to violently sodomize a rival. Some of its members say a governor whose behavior jeopardized the state’s pursuit of a Boeing plant and its 3,000 jobs, skipped the country for a week and lied to the state’s residents, effectively walking away from all of his duties for an illicit tryst, should remain governor because none of that rises to “misconduct in office.”

But let a child – South Carolina is one of the few states that prosecutes those younger than 10 in adult court and is one of only eight with a juvenile serving life without parole for a nonviolent crime – make a horrible mistake, even though we know from numerous studies that the impulse-control centers of their brains are not fully developed, and those same politicians are the first to say lock ’em up and throw away the key because they are unredeemable.

The public isn’t much better. We applaud when police handcuff an unruly 8-year-old or barely pay attention when it convicts a 12-year-old of first-degree murder – even though the only eyewitness testified that it was an accidental shooting – but are split on whether or not a grown man serving in the state’s highest office went too far with behavior so detrimental it had Homeland Security second-guessing his security clearance.

Before the S.C. Ethics Commission found probable cause for ethical or criminal violations last week in a probe delving into Sanford’s use of public money, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, released a statement that said, “Unless the investigation contains new information about serious crimes or serious misconduct by the governor, the information we have to date does not rise to a level to remove him from office.”

That’s right. A man given the responsibility to lead our National Guard and the power to suspend public officials – like he recently did with the Atlantic Beach mayor – can have all the impulse-control lapses he likes; if there’s no crack pipe in sight, he should continue leading us. But a child … let’s continue pretending they are sawed-off adults who ought to spend life in prison.

Sanford long bragged about his principles and the need to hold leaders to a high standard while messing around with any number of women and seemingly cavalierly ignoring rules about the use of state travel funds. But the state’s children, children who face among the highest rates of poverty and experience among the nation’s highest rates of domestic violence and on whom the lowest rate of money is spent to prevent child abuse … let one of them shock us, let one of them step out of line. Politicians, the same ones telling residents loudly and clearly that their misconduct should be ignored or explained away, will be the first to find a TV camera to proudly argue for harsher punishment for juvenile offenders, never mind that we know treating them like adults will make them more likely to re-offend, to become hardened criminals.

Sanford and other state leaders who screw up royally, let’s not be too tough on them. They are too delicate. They must be handled with care.

We wouldn’t want the next governor to get the impression that if he (or she) has a secret affair that puts the state’s well being in jeopardy that he (or she) might get removed from office. That would put too much stress on the shoulders of someone entrusted with leading 4.5 million people. We wouldn’t want to start kicking out leaders who act like petulant little children or stop throwing away overgrown children who don’t realize they aren’t adults.

Forget the children. We must save the politicians. They are our future.

Second chances


Society has laws that prohibit young people from driving before the age of 16, voting before age 18 or drinking alcohol before 21.

These laws are designed to protect children and society, and are a reflection of society’s understanding that children do not have the mental capacity or maturity to exercise proper judgment in all situations.

Yet, when it comes to sentencing youthful offenders, eight states hand out life-without-parole sentences to those who commit non-homicidal crimes as adolescents. Those states are Florida, Louisiana, California, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina.

Among the world’s developed nations, the United States stands alone in meting out such medieval punishment.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether life without parole for those convicted of non-homicide crimes violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment banning “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The high court heard oral arguments regarding two Florida cases. Joe Sullivan was 13 years old when he raped an elderly women. He is now 34. Terrance Graham was found guilty of armed robbery at age 16 and violated parole at age 17. Both are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Neither involved a homicide.

It bears noting that juveniles are exempt from the death penalty. That precedent was established in Roper vs. Simmons four years ago when a divided Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be executed for crimes including homicides. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote at that time that juveniles are more susceptible to “immature and irresponsible” behavior and thus are not fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.

The American Medical Association has asserted that adolescents are more likely to engage in risky and irresponsible behavior, in part, because their brains are not yet fully developed.

It also stands to reason that maturity brings with it a greater sense of understanding; that criminal behavior at a young age is not necessarily a permanent part of a young person’s character.

No one is arguing that juveniles who commit heinous crimes should not be jailed. The question is, should they be locked up forever without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they were old enough, in some cases, to go to high school?

Turning 18 does not magically transform an individual into a mature adult. But the under-18 precedent is a long-established tradition. And experts in neuroscience, psychology and social science agree that those same youths who often can be coerced into criminal activities have the capacity to change and be rehabilitated.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a staunch conservative from Wyoming, who had what he calls a “rebellious” youth, has called life without parole unconstitutional.

When “a young person is sent ‘up the river,’ ” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, “we need to remember that all rivers can change course.”

Sending those under 18 to jail for life without parole is not a deterrent. It is a miscarriage of justice.

Parole hearings do not guarantee that someone will be released. But it does give those who have matured and have shown remorse a second chance.

Ugly Truth: Most U.S. Kids Sentenced to Die In Prison Are Black

By Liliana Segura

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases that could have major implications for the way juvenile offenders are treated in our criminal justice system. Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida both involve men who are serving life without the possibility of parole for crimes they were convicted of as teenagers — crimes in which no one was killed.

Joe Sullivan was only 13 years old when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 72-year-old woman in her Pensacola, Fla., home, hours after he and a group of older teenagers robbed her house. Sullivan, who reportedly suffers from mental disabilities, insisted that, while he participated in the robbery, he did not commit the rape. But his co-defendants, 15-year-old Michael Gulley and 17-year-old Nathan McCants, 17 pinned the crime on him. Both were tried as juveniles; Sullivan was tried as an adult.

Sullivan is African American, a fact that was stressed repeatedly at trial. The victim, Lena Bruner, testified that her assailant was “a colored boy” with “kinky hair” — “he was quite black, and he was small,” she said. Bruner admitted that she “did not see him full in the face,” but she remembered him saying, “If you can’t identify me, I may not have to kill you.”

According to the New York Times, “at his trial, Mr. Sullivan was made to say those words several times.” (“‘It’s been six months,’ the woman said on the witness stand. ‘It’s hard, but it does sound similar.’ “)

Sullivan had shabby representation — his lawyer didn’t bother making an opening statement and later lost his license to practice in Florida — and his one-day trial should have cast serious doubts about his guilt. “The only physical evidence was a fingerprint lifted from a plaque in the bedroom, which could have been made during the burglary,” wrote Amy Bach in Slate last week. “The clothing and other evidence have been destroyed and couldn’t be tested for DNA.” Nevertheless, he was found guilty, and at 14, Sullivan became the youngest person in the country to be sentenced to life without parole.

“I’m going to send him away for as long as I can,” the judge said.

Today, Sullivan is one of some 109 prisoners in the country whose non-homicide crimes have condemned them to leave prison only in a coffin. No fewer than 76 of those prisoners are behind bars in Florida. (Until last month there were 77, but 29-year-old Travis Underhill, sentenced to life in 1999 for armed robbery, “collapsed while playing basketball at a Palm Beach County prison on Oct. 8 and died,” according to the Miami Herald.) The vast majority — 84 percent, in Florida — are African American. On a national level, according to Human Rights Watch, African American youths are serving life without parole at a rate of about 10 times that of white youths.

Monday’s oral arguments covered a lot of ground, including whether life-without-parole is comparable to the death penalty (which has been banned for juveniles); whether the purpose, ultimately, is about deterrence or retribution — “What is the State’s interest in keeping … the defendant in custody for the rest of his life if he has been rehabilitated and is no longer a real danger?” — whether, for sentencing purposes, there’s any practical difference between a 13-year-old or a 10-year-old — or, for that matter, an 18-year-old and a 17-and-11-month-old (“the line has to be drawn somewhere.”) At points, it got downright philosophical (“Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?” asked Justice Kennedy.) But at the center of the argument was the question of whether children — and their potential for rehabilitation — should be judged by the same standards as that of grown-ups. “To not recognize the difference between a child and an adult is cruel and unusual,” defense attorney Bryan Stevenson told Justice Antonin Scalia.

Conspicuously absent from the oral arguments, however, was any discussion of race. The one time Stevenson attempted to mention it, as one of the “arbitrary features” of the distribution of life-without-parole sentences — these prisoners are “disproportionately kids of color,” Stevenson said — he was interrupted by Justice Alito, who questioned the reliability of his statistics. (“What is your response to the State’s argument that these statistics are not peer-reviewed?” he asked.)

It can be tricky to pin down exact numbers when it comes to specific prison populations from state to state, particularly given the differences between sentencing statutes across the country. And states have not traditionally kept track of how many juveniles are in their adult prisons. But when it comes to juvenile lifers, there are some figures that have been widely accepted (and not contested by the state of Florida.)

“There are 73 children 14 and younger who have been imprisoned for life without parole,” Stevenson told the Court. “…For the age of 13 and younger, there are only nine kids, and that’s including both kids convicted of homicide and non-homicide. For non-homicide, there are only two. They are both in Florida and Joe Sullivan is one of them.”

What he did not get to say is that of the vast majority of kids who are sentenced to die in prison are black.

This is unfortunate. Racism has been central to the policies that led to the rise in life sentences for juveniles in the first place — and not just in Florida. The Supreme Court may rely on legal precedents to make their decisions — but that does not mean it necessarily considers history.

The Myth of the “Superpredator”

The crime that led Joe Sullivan to life in prison took place in 1989. It was the same year that would see notorious serial killer Ted Bundy executed at the Florida state prison in Starke — an exceptional case that would capture the mood of the locals when it came to dealing with would-be-murderers. (The St. Petersburg Times reported that year, “Across Florida, radio stations bade ‘Bye, Bye, Bundy,’ while next door to the Chi Omega sorority, where Bundy killed two young women, a campus bar was offering ‘Bundy fries’ and ‘Bundy fingers’ — actually, french fries and strips of alligator meat.”)

Florida serial killers aside, 1989 was also the year that a young, blond investment banker from Manhattan brutally assaulted in New York’s Central Park, a horrible crime that the cops, the press and even people who lived nowhere near New York City declared solved within days. The rapists, it was decided, were five young black and Latino teenagers from Harlem. All of then would turn out to be innocent (a fact that came out only after each lost years of their lives in prison.) But in the eyes of many commentators at the time, these teenagers were the worst kind of monsters:

“They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance,” New York Post columnist Pete Hamill wrote in the days after the crime. “They were coming from a land with no fathers. … They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor.”

And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.
So the country was introduced to the new urban “superpredator,” as Princeton University Professor John DiIulio would brand this new prototype of youth crime. These twisted teenage thugs — described in New York as traveling in “wolf packs” that hunted innocent people upon whom to inflict their mob violence (“wilding”) — were a whole new breed of criminal, he said, and existing laws were no match for their evolving standards of brutality.

DiIulio would spend the next few years spreading the gospel of the superpredator, warning that “Americans are sitting atop a demographic crime bomb.”

“On the horizon … are tens of thousands of morally impoverished juvenile superpredators,” he wrote in The Weekly Standard in 1995. “They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons.”

The difference between teen criminals in decades past, he argued in his book, Body Count, amounted to “the difference between the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story and the Bloods and the Crips.”

“It is not inconceivable that the demographic surge of the next 10 years will bring with it young criminals who make the Bloods and the Crips look tame.”

But how real was this so-called superpredator or the terrifying crime wave to come? Although the country saw a spike in juvenile crime in the early 1990s, it wasn’t entirely clear what was behind it.

Some cited crack cocaine, others cited the country’s changing demographics (with baby boomers’ offspring entering adolescence), and others pointed to high unemployment. But in the years to come, one thing became clear: The teenage crime wave so ominously predicted by DiIulio and his political affiliates was pure fiction.

Owning up to this fact is none other than DiIulio himself, who pulled a fairly stunning 180 a few years ago, when he admitted that his influential theory of urban superpredators was wrong.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would have shouted for prevention of crimes,” he told the New York Times in 2001. Indeed, crime among teenagers — particularly violent crime, hit a historic low in recent years, with arrest rates of juveniles falling a whopping 49 percent between 1994 and 2004.

But the damage was already done: Throughout the 1990s, the country arrested teenagers — many of them first-time offenders — in record numbers, slapping them with long sentences previously reserved for hardened criminals.

Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, wrote in 2005 that in the years that followed the hysteria over superpredators, “More than 40 states made it easier to transfer children to adult criminal courts. Educators enacted ‘zero-tolerance’ policies to make it easier to expel youngsters from school, and numerous communities adopted youth curfews. Many jurisdictions turned to metal detectors in public schools, random locker searches, drug tests for athletes and mandatory school uniforms.

The panic was bipartisan. Every crime bill debated by Congress during the Clinton administration included new federal laws against juvenile crime. Paradoxically, as Attorney General Janet Reno advocated for wider and stronger social safety nets for vulnerable families, President Bill Clinton joined congressional leaders demanding tougher treatment of juvenile felons, including more incarceration in both the adult and youth correctional systems.
Paving the way was the Sunshine State. “Florida led the country in transferring juveniles into the adult courts,” says Stephen K. Harper, a University of Miami professor who teaches juvenile law. At the same time, adult sentences were getting longer. In 1983, Florida abolished parole for most crimes, and in 1995, it got rid of parole altogether. “Adolescents were being transferred into the adult system, while simultaneously the adult system was becoming more punitive,” Harper told AlterNet.

Today, the results are a bit perverse. According to Florida State Law Professor Paolo Annino, “Florida takes the lead in placing the youngest children in the adult prison system.”

“The most recent Florida data shows, there is 1 inmate who was 10, 4 inmates who were 11, 5 inmates who were 12, and 31 inmates who were 13 years old at the time of their offense.”

Annino and Harper both point to what Harper calls the “unintended consequences” of Florida’s rush to incarcerate juveniles. “In 1983 and 1995, the Florida Legislature did not contemplate that hundreds of children would be sent to adult prison in the last two decades,” Annino wrote earlier this year. But before the Court, Florida Solicitor General Scott D. Makar defended Florida’s large juvenile lifer population, suggesting that the state knew exactly what it was doing. “I believe Florida is very balanced,” he told Scalia during oral arguments in Graham v. Florida.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum agrees. In his brief filed in Graham, McCollum argues that it was Florida’s brand of tough-on-crime legislation that led to falling crime rates in the late 1990s — a claim that law professors Jeffrey Fagan and Franklin E. Zimring call “as phony as last decade’s crime scare.”

“As a member of Congress in the 1990s,” they wrote, “[McCollum] promised the United States a ‘coming storm’ of superpredators as a result of a population surge of kids from fatherless homes.”

This, of course was the claim pushed by John DiIulio, the only difference being that, more than a decade later, McCollum still seems determined to believe it.

The “superpredator” myth — and the racism that breathed life into it — has been a driving force behind the rush to incarcerate youths of color across the country for years. That the human effects would go undiscussed by the Court may come as no surprise given the justices’ routine upholding of other laws that disproportionately affect people and families of color. But in a country with 2.3 million prisoners, leaving race completely out of the decision would not just be willful ignorance; it would amount to what Bryan Stevenson has called an “appalling silence.”

Reconsider plight of juvenile 'lifers'


It was a remarkable coincidence. While the U.S. Supreme Court this week was considering whether teenage criminals deserve to be sentenced to life in prison without parole in cases that do not involve homicide, three South Florida teens were charged as adults for setting fire to another teenager.
The horrible suffering inflicted on 15-year-old Michael Brewer of Deerfield Beach represents one of the most abhorrent crimes South Florida has witnessed in a long time, which is saying a lot. Five teens acting in concert, according to the police, doused him with alcohol and set the boy aflame. The victim has managed to survive thus far, with burns over 65 percent of his body, but he remains in critical condition and his life will be changed forever.

`Cruel and unusual punishment’

This is precisely the kind of case that makes juries, prosecutors and judges want to “send a message” to other would-be criminals by imposing sentences severe enough to match the crime. The question before the Supreme Court is whether sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole in such circumstances constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

It is no coincidence that the cases before the court came from Florida, because this state leads the nation in the number of criminals serving life sentences for crimes they committed while juveniles in which no one was killed. Out of 106 such prisoners, 77 are in Florida. This is not something to be proud of.

Instead, argued the attorneys who want the court to ban such sentences, it is something to be ashamed of. The lopsided numbers indicate widespread repudiation of such sentences elsewhere.

Further, they argued, the immature and “transient” nature of adolescence makes it impossible to determine at such an early age who should be deemed unredeemably incorrigible and thrown into a jail cell forever.

Opportunity for change

In support of this view, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming filed a brief saying teen criminals deserve a chance of freedom. He was involved in arson and other serious crimes as a teen before making a better life for himself. He may be an exception, but his life would have been wasted in prison without the opportunity provided by parole.

The answer may be to allow for some sort of mandatory parole hearing at a later stage in life. Even Charles Manson, the iconic incarnation of evil, gets a chance to plead his case occasionally, although he’s been denied 11 times by the parole board in California.

A parole hearing is not a get-out-of-jail card, but rather an opportunity to show that the prisoner has been rehabilitated. Horrible crimes deserve serious time — but adolescents deserve a second chance at life beyond prison walls.

Florida leads nation in locking up kids in adult jails

By Colleen Jenkins

This week, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard appeals in two Florida juvenile cases, scholars took note that the state leads the nation in locking up kids for life who committed crimes in which no one died.

That isn’t Florida’s only distinction.

The state sends more children to adult jails and prisons, period. Laws make it easy for prosecutors to pluck young people out of the juvenile justice system before they turn 18.

And in sheer numbers, Hillsborough County transferred more juvenile cases to the adult system than any other county in fiscal year 2007-08, a St. Petersburg Times review of Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data shows. Percentage-wise, Palm Beach County ranked No. 1, with Pinellas following as a close second among the state’s largest counties.

Six Tampa Bay area counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Manatee — deemed juveniles in 1,410 cases bad enough to be charged as adults. On the other end of the spectrum, seven counties in Florida didn’t send any young people to the adult system.

Local prosecutors say the numbers reflect an aggressive stance against juvenile crime, but they stress that the decision to charge teens as adults isn’t made lightly. Kids who wind up in felony court can still walk away with juvenile sanctions.

“It gives them one more bite at the apple, but we have a much bigger hammer over their head,” Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said.

Advocates for juvenile justice reform argue that the statutes Florida enacted in the 1990s response to a surge in juvenile crime need updating. Researchers say the laws fail to consider that adolescents, less developed than adults, are often capable of change. Or that, all things equal, juveniles are more likely to re-offend if convicted in adult court.

The stain of an adult conviction, they say, threatens a young person’s ability to join the military, get a job or enroll in school.

“You essentially pull the rug out from under these kids, and it’s no wonder that they end up back in the system,” said Liz Ryan, chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C., an organization dedicated to keeping youth out of the adult criminal justice system.

Statewide during the 2007-08 fiscal year, the number of juveniles transferred to adult court increased to 3,592. That’s a 45 percent jump since 2003-04, but only about half as many transfers as the state had at its peak in the mid 1990s.

Hillsborough County prosecutors sent 660 juvenile cases to adult court in 2007-08, the most in the state. Hillsborough also had the most juvenile arrests in 2007 and 2008, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Pinellas prosecutors transferred 517 cases, up from 271 cases four years earlier. Pasco County transferred 84 cases, down from previous years; Hernando had 46, Citrus had 33 and Manatee had 70.

In five of the six counties, burglary was the most common ticket to the adult system.

Researchers say the majority of juvenile cases land in adult court through “direct file,” meaning at the discretion of prosecutors. Florida is one of just 15 states that give prosecutors that power.

Some juvenile advocates contend that the decision to transfer juveniles to adult court should be left up to judges because they are neutral parties in the criminal justice system. Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett counters that the current arrangement includes sufficient checks and balances, allowing judges to give young offenders juvenile sanctions or youthful offender sentences if they don’t feel the cases merit adult punishment.

Florida statutes require prosecutors to direct file or seek indictment for certain violent crimes — such as murder — in adult court no matter the offender’s age. Beyond that, prosecutors say their filing decisions are dictated by each offender’s individual circumstances rather than strict guidelines.

Some crimes are so heinous that the public interest requires adult charges, prosecutors say. That was the rationale they used to pursue adult charges against 13-year-old Jose Guadalupe Walle, who was suspected in a string of rapes and robberies at restaurants in St. Petersburg and Apollo Beach and a Gibsonton home.

“He was 13 going on 25,” Bartlett said this week. Some young offenders are “behaving as adults, and the crime itself warrants them to be charged as adults.”

Prosecutors also turn to the adult system to deal with repeat offenders.

“Frankly, there are some of the kids we have in juvenile court who have not been amenable to any sanctions we can impose,” said Pinellas Judge Raymond Gross. “You run out of options.”

The charging decision isn’t always clear cut. Defense attorneys and prosecutors spent weeks wrestling over whether Davis Islands teen Jordan Valdez should be charged in juvenile or adult court with fleeing the scene of a fatal crash when she was 16. The teen’s attorneys said she was a good kid who made a mistake, and they worried that a felony charge would dash her college scholarship hopes.

Prosecutors ultimately filed an adult charge, saying only that they based the decision on the nature of the crime. Valdez is expected to plead guilty and be sentenced Nov. 24.

In Pinellas, Bartlett admits he struggled with the decision to charge five teenagers as adults after they terrorized neighborhoods over two nights in January and February with firebombs, slashed tires and shattered windows. Though the young men were good students, Bartlett said the amount of property damage and the repeated offenses tipped the scale for him to adult charges.

“I was pretty comfortable in my mind that those kids would never reoffend,” he said. “But there’s a certain level of punishment that has to be attached to it.”

Last month, a judge sentenced the teens as youthful offenders to varying combinations of prison and probation.

Advocates acknowledge that young offenders need to be punished, but they lament that the state’s tough stance on juvenile crime has shifted the focus, and funding, away from rehabilitation and prevention.

There are bright spots. After terrible crime rates in the 1990s, Miami-Dade is now considered a national model for effective juvenile justice. The county puts special emphasis on getting services for first-time offenders based on their needs rather than their crimes, a model Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have watched with interest.

Taking a holistic view with juvenile offenders is the only approach that makes sense, said Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt.

“If you don’t modify the behavior of the child and you don’t create a values system,” Holt said, “there’s no doubt that the community suffers at a later time and so does that child.”

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Supreme Court Weighs Juvenile Life Sentences

By Alex Kingsbury

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.”