Imprisoning a Child for Life


The United States could be the only nation in the world where a 13-year-old child can be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, even for crimes that do not include murder. This grim distinction should trouble Americans deeply, as should all of the barbaric sentencing policies for children that this country embraces but that most of the world has abandoned.

The Supreme Court must keep the international standard in mind when it hears arguments on Monday in Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida. The petitioners in both argue that sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The court came down on the right side of this issue in 2005 when it ruled that children who commit crimes before the age of 18 should not be subject to the death penalty. The decision correctly pointed out that juveniles were less culpable because they lacked maturity, were vulnerable to peer pressure and had personalities that were still being formed.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the practice of executing 16- and 17-year-olds violated the Eighth Amendment, conflicted with “evolving standards of decency” and isolated the United States from the rest of the world.

The Roper decision took scores of juveniles off death row. It also threw a spotlight onto state policies under which young juveniles were increasingly being tried in adult courts and sentenced to adult jails, often for nonviolent crimes.

The practice is even more troubling because it is arbitrary. Children who commit nonviolent crimes like theft and burglary are just as likely to be shipped off to adult courts as children who commit serious violent crimes. And the process is racially freighted, with black and Latino children more likely to be sent to adult courts than white children who commit comparable crimes.

The rush to try more and more children as adults began in the 1980s when the country was gripped by hysteria about an adolescent crime wave that never materialized. Joe Sullivan, the petitioner in Sullivan v. Florida, was sentenced to life without parole in 1989 — when he was just 13 — after a questionable sexual battery conviction. His two older accomplices testified against the younger, mentally impaired boy. They received short sentences, one of them as a juvenile.

The case of Terrance Graham has similar contours. A learning disabled child — born to crack-addicted parents — Mr. Graham was on probation in connection with a burglary committed when he was 16 when he participated in a home invasion. He, too, had older accomplices. He was never convicted of the actual crime but was given life without parole for violating the conditions of his probation.

These were two very troubled children in need of adult supervision and perhaps even time behind bars. But it is insupportable to conclude, as the courts did, that children who committed crimes when they were so young were beyond rehabilitation. The laws under which they were convicted violate current human rights standards and the Constitution.

Don’t give up on the Kids

Supreme Court should reject life without parole for juveniles, says one who knows the system

November 1, 2009
By R. Dwayne Betts

A life sentence begins with Rashid’s name.

I can’t walk away from the first time I looked into his 15-year-old eyes, the eyes of someone close to my age, and knew he was sentenced to die in prison. When I met Rashid, his voice still carried the cracks and high notes that signaled adolescence, and his smooth face had never felt a razor. The same signs that belied my youth belied his. We were at the Southampton Receiving Center in Virginia, waiting on a bus to take us to prison.

No fewer than a dozen of us were Rashid’s age, all with peers at home waiting on driver’s licenses, graduations and proms – while we waited for the morning that would lead us to a prison cell. Rashid’s time was legend: three life sentences with no chance for parole. It meant he awoke each morning knowing he would one day flatline within arm’s reach of a cell.

I looked at him, and the judge’s voice echoed in my head: “Are you aware your charges carry a life sentence?” Rashid wasn’t old enough to drive, vote or serve on a jury of his peers – but he was old enough to walk out of a courtroom with a sentence that ends in a casket. After I met Rashid, my nine-year sentence for carjacking seemed like a gift.

Five years after my own release from prison – and months after delivering a commencement speech at the University of Maryland’s graduation, speaking moments before CIA Director Leon Panetta – I found myself on an American Bar Association panel with lawyers and psychologists. A woman in the audience asked me what I thought should be done to a child who commits the kinds of crimes that end with life without the possibility of parole; I misheard her question and kept thinking that she had asked what I would do or say if the victim had been my family member.

As I began to answer her question, I thought about Rashid, and about how I couldn’t escape the nightmare of being in a closed cell. I thought about my relatives, and how in my family tree there were both victims of violence and perpetrators. I thought about the judge reminding me of the life sentence I faced. And then I asked myself: What would I want if the victim were my daughter, or my sister? In my head there were two horrors, and I realized that the horror of life in prison and everything it means doesn’t make right the horror of crimes I can’t begin to imagine.

I told the woman that the justice system was not created to respond the way a family member would. We ask our justice system to do more than just act on impulse. We ask it to stand for more than vengeance. A system that didn’t believe in the rehabilitation of young people would have left Alan K. Simpson a statistic and not given him room to mature to the point where he could become a United States senator. Charles S. Dutton wouldn’t be a renowned actor. Many nameless men and women who are productive members of our society would still be in prison cells.

On Nov. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, cases in which juveniles were sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. The court will decide whether such sentences are constitutional. I, along with a number of former juvenile offenders – including Mr. Simpson and Mr. Dutton – filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to give young offenders the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed later.

Sixteen years doesn’t prepare you for much. Fifteen years prepares you for even less, and I remember what Rashid’s eyes looked like the day he walked to my cell door asking who he should or shouldn’t let be a friend to him. He was a boy in a jungle and I, only a year older, was playing at being a man. Fifteen years doesn’t prepare you for prison, and it doesn’t prepare you to understand just how lasting scars can be.

As teenagers, our lives were impulse and reaction. Our lives were filled with uncertainties and the insanity around us, and all we ever wanted people to know, after we’d walked out of a courtroom, was that we could be more than our crimes, one day – that rehabilitation is real. All we wanted was to believe that our lives could be more than a series of cell doors.

R. Dwayne Betts lives in Prince George’s County and is the author of “A Question of Freedom.” His e-mail is [email protected].

Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun

Justices will scrutinize life sentences for youths
Cases of two Florida juveniles raise questions about penalty for non-homicide crimes
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

It did not take long for the judge to determine that the convicted rapist in front of him was irredeemable.

“He is beyond help,” Judge Nicholas Geeker said of Joe Harris Sullivan. “I’m going to try to send him away for as long as I can.”

And then Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, Sullivan was 13 years old.

Now, 20 years after that sentencing in a courtroom in Pensacola, Fla., the Supreme Court will consider whether Sullivan’s prison term — and what his supporters say is an only-in-America phenomenon of extreme sentences for juveniles — violates the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The case — which has drawn widespread notice and briefs from former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and others describing their own youthful crimes — is likely to be a cardinal criminal justice decision for the court this term.

It is a natural outgrowth of the court’s bitterly divided ruling in 2005 that juveniles cannot be executed for murders they commit.

Those challenging sentences of life without parole for teenagers base their optimism on words in Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in that case: “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. . . . It would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

Sullivan is represented by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, who said his client’s sentence is no different from the punishment the court found unconstitutional.

“They are both effectively death sentences,” Stevenson said in an interview. “One is death by execution, and the other is death by incarceration, but they are both terminal sentences.”

Only two 13-year-olds in the country have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes that were not homicides, Stevenson said, and both of them are held in Florida.

Florida officials would not discuss Sullivan’s case before the November arguments, but their brief to the court said states are within their rights to lock up forever those thought to pose a perpetual threat to society.

“There is no consensus against life sentences for juveniles, particularly for heinous crimes such as sexual battery,” Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar wrote.

Across the country, 111 people are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles that did not result in a death, according to one report; 77 of them are locked up in Florida, for crimes including armed robbery and carjacking. The state took a get-tough approach in the 1990s in response to a crime wave that was “compromising the safety of residents, visitors, and international tourists, and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry,” Florida’s brief to the court states.

That brief came in the case of Terrance Jamar Graham, a second petition the court accepted. Graham, of Jacksonville, received a life sentence after being part of a group that robbed a barbecue restaurant when he was 16; while on probation a year later, he was part of an armed burglary. Again, a judge doubted Graham’s ability to ever change his ways; his accomplices served short sentences.

A range of issues

In accepting both cases and deciding to hear them separately, the court gives itself a wide range of issues to ponder. The justices may rule that such sentences are acceptable for 17-year-olds, for instance, but not 13-year-olds. They could look at the relative seriousness of the crimes, or differentiate the non-homicides in both cases with crimes in which someone is killed.

Sullivan, who his lawyer said had been living on the streets since he was 10, had a troubled history with the law. He had 17 offenses before the crime at issue. In 1989, he and two friends burglarized the home of a 72-year-old woman one day while she was away, then returned later. The woman was raped by one of the juveniles; she never saw his face, identifying him only as a “dark, colored boy.” But she remembered that he said something like, “If you can’t identify me, I may not have to kill you.”

At the one-day trial, Sullivan was made to say the words over and over. The victim listened and said: “It’s been six months. It’s hard, but it does sound similar.”

The other boys singled out Sullivan as committing the rape.

“The conviction itself was very questionable,” Stevenson said. “We do think he’s innocent.”

But that is not at issue in the case before the Supreme Court. Stevenson only seeks to have Sullivan, now 33, resentenced so that at some point he becomes eligible for release.

Stevenson contends that Florida made no conscious policy decision that 13-year-olds should be eligible for life without parole for a non-homicide. No state that has debated the question has set the age that low. Instead, he said, Sullivan and others were caught up in a legislative reaction to escalating crime.

“What happened is we lowered the minimum age for trying kids as adults and brought them into the adult system, and we expanded the range of very harsh sentences for an adult, and these two things have collided,” he said.

Besides the two Floridians serving life sentences for non-homicides committed at 13, seven others have received that sentence for crimes resulting in a death, Stevenson said.

‘An index of mercy’

But the state of Florida and its supporters said that is evidence that the sentences are carefully applied to the worst of the worst.

“It is a rare and agonizing decision to sentence a juvenile to life-without-parole,” said a brief filed by Louisiana and 18 other states. “But rare does not mean unconstitutional. Rather, rarity is an index of mercy — of reluctance to take this severe step.”

The National District Attorneys Association, supporting Florida, said that while life without parole for juveniles might be unusual, “permanent incarceration for the most violent, hardened juvenile offenders is by no means ‘cruel.’ ”

Sullivan and Graham are supported by a wide-ranging group of organizations: the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and academics and social scientists who argue that juveniles cannot be held responsible for their actions in the same way adults are. For the same reason, they say, younger teenagers are not entrusted with decisions such as voting, marrying or drinking.

A group of educators and social scientists told the court that such research was crucial to the 2005 decision that juveniles should not be subject to the death penalty. “The principal purposes of sentencing — punishing the culpable and deterring the rational — are not furthered by denying the possibility of parole to adolescents,” the group said.

Graham and Sullivan are also supported in an unusual friend-of-the-court brief by former juvenile offenders such as Simpson, director and actor Charles Dutton, and a poet, a software executive and a former assistant U.S. attorney.

“At some point, you have to look at them again and ask, ‘What have you done with your life?’ ” said Simpson, who said that as a youth he burned down an abandoned federal building, destroyed property and fought with a police officer. “Maybe 90 percent of them you throw back in, but what about the other 10 percent?”

The cases are Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida.

Should Juveniles Be Sent To Jail For Life?

The Supreme Court is considering a case that could outlaw the practice of sentencing teenagers to life without parole. Former Republican United States Senator Alan Simpson and author R. Dwayne Betts have filed an amicus brief in the case. Simpson and Betts, both former juvenile offenders, tell host Michel Martin why they believe all teenagers should have a second chance.



I’m Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Michael Jackson never made it to his comeback tour, but four months after his untimely death, fans can see him on screen. The new documentary “This Is It” captures the King of Pop’s final rehearsals. We’ll hear a review. That’s just ahead.

But first, the story of two men. One was convicted of carjacking at the age of 16; the other was a hellraiser who helped burn down a federal building, shot a cow for fun and hit a police officer after a racially charged bar fight.

Some might say those two are just no good: throw them in jail and throw away the key. And they might be right, except for the throw-away-the-key part because the first man became an accomplished writer and poet and the other a distinguished United States senator.

Now those two men have teamed up, along with other accomplished former juvenile offenders, to urge the Supreme Court to consider outlawing life sentences without parole for people who committed non-capital offenses as juveniles. They filed an amicus brief in the case of Graham v. Florida, which the court is expected to hear next month.

Currently, nine people are serving life-without-parole terms for offenses committed when they were 13 or 14 years old.

The two men I was just talking about are with us now. They are R. Dwayne Betts, he’s author of “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison.” Also with us, Senator Alan K. Simpson. He’s a former United States senator from Wyoming, a Republican.

Welcome to you both, or I should say welcome back to you, Senator Simpson.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Wyoming): Well, hello to you, and it’s a pleasure to participate here. It’s an interesting thing. I want to you know that I am not in this with any compensation whatsoever. I’m not paid by anybody. What you’re hearing is the miscreant restored.

Mr. R. DWAYNE BETTS (Author, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison”): And I echo those sentiments. It’s a pleasure for me to be here, as well.

MARTIN: Senator, did a lot of your colleagues in the Senate know your rather colorful past, we should say?

Mr. SIMPSON: I think the thing that’s important is that people do know it, and I knew when I ran for public life that the first thing that the media would do would be prowled through everything I’d ever done. So I thought, well, I don’t want them to find it. I just said look, I was on federal probation for two years for shooting mailboxes.

We did commit an arson, which was never found, we destroyed property. And then in Laramie, when I was a freshman and weighed 260 pounds and had hair and thought beer was food, I got in a fight with a guy who got all cut up, not by me, and then the cop arrested me, and I slugged the cop and ended up in the clink for a night and decided, you know, I don’t need this much more.

MARTIN: Dwayne, what about you? How did you get started, for want of a better word, hellraising?

Mr. BETTS: I tell people that it was real slow. I was smoking weed every once in a while. Then I was smoking weed all the time, but I was always a good student, so when I say it was slow, it’s almost as if one day I just woke up, and I was incarcerated.

I had a gun in my hand one night. I carjacked a man, and then the next day, we got locked up. We pled guilty. But the truth is if you would have talked to me the week before, you would have found out that I was applying or getting ready to apply for scholarships to college, and really, I was on my way out of my community, so to speak.

MARTIN: The judge at your sentencing told you, as you recall, that he was under no illusions that sending you to prison will help you. Why do you think he said that?

Mr. BETTS: Because I think the judge understood that as a juvenile, I was even amenable to rehabilitation at that time, but I think the judge also recognized that prison was not the place where I will be rehabilitated, but his comments helped me more than prison helped me because his comments made me feel like I needed to prove that I could make something out of myself, even though I was at the bottom of the bottom at the time when he spoke to me.

MARTIN: Did you feel that way at the time? I mean, you were in prison for nine years.

Mr. BETTS: No, I felt that way…

MARTIN: You had a lot of time to think about what he had to say.

Mr. BETTS: No, I felt that way at the time. I mean, as soon as he said it, it struck my head as something that didn’t fit in everything else that was going on in the courtroom, and after he said it, my aunt screamed, and she screamed as if somebody was dying. So the two things echo in my head together where his pronouncements was almost a death sentence, and my family took it as such.

And I was there to say hold up. I could change this. I could turn it around. And even though I didn’t consciously know how, I was already consciously thinking about making my life something different.

I mean I got my high school diploma while I was in jail before I was sentenced, so I was already in the path for making my life different before I was sentenced. So I knew that I was, you know, to the best of my ability to continue along that path.

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re speaking with author R. Dwayne Betts and former United States Senator Alan Simpson. And we’re talking about teenagers being sentenced to life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The Supreme Court is taking up a case that would outlaw that practice. Both Senator Simpson and author Betts are former juvenile offenders.

Senator, what about you? You started our conversation by saying that nobody’s, you know, paid you to be participatory in this issue of asking the court to outlaw – as unconstitutional, as cruel and unusual punishment – life without parole sentences for juveniles who’ve non-capital offenses as juveniles.

What made you want to join this brief? Why did you decide to get involved?

Representative SIMPSON: Well, they had read about, you know, that these things I say have been public for a long time, ever since I ran, and they had picked that up and they called and they said there’s this Supreme Court case. I said well look, I want you to know I’m not soft on criminals, especially people who rape and pillage and murder and all that.

And they said no, these are not homicides, they’re not murder, and where they’ve said to the guy at 13, 14, or 15, you’re in for life with no possibility of parole. I, you know, I just thought, well, why don’t they call the guy in in 20 or 30 years and say what are you doing here in the clink? Well, I’m the assistant librarian. Are you? All right, I read a lot. I didn’t know how to read when I got here, but I do now. Or making beautiful license plates – mine are the best of all. But whatever they’re doing, they’ve improved themselves, and I think those people need a second chance.

MARTIN: There are those who say that even if you are 13 or 14, if you cross a certain line, you’ve crossed it, that your behavior requires that you be separated from society. What do you say to people who have that point of view, and you know that they are certainly people who do?

Representative SIMPSON: I just tell them look, give a guy a chance. Just say -bring them in and if they say, I don’t do anything. I’m just sitting here wondering how to get out so I can keep doing this again, throw them back in the clink. But if they have made a conscious decision to say, I’m changed. I really am. You got to give me a try and here’s why, and then put up the proof, and then put them out on probation.

MARTIN: Dwayne, what do you have to say about this?

Mr. BETTS: I mean I think if you consider the fact that a 13-year-old who serves 25 years in prison would still be released as a relatively young man, and a lot of things happen over the course of 25 years, so it’s not even as if we expect a person that commits that crime to be the same person 25 years later. Me at 16, I’m a totally different man now at 28.

So, the one thing I say is, if you think that the things I’m doing are positive, and your recognize that I did this without really any institutional support, you know with the proper institutional support a 13-year-old that commits – and we’re talking about non-homicide offenses – a juvenile that commits one of those offenses is very redeemable.

Juveniles are juveniles for a reason. In every area of life, in every area of law, if you’re under 18, you can’t buy cigarettes. Why? Because you’re a juvenile. You have to be a certain age to get a driver’s license. You have to be certain age to drink. I mean everywhere else we recognize that it’s a difference between juveniles and adults. And we recognize that that difference is even greater the younger the child is.

MARTIN: Senator, can I ask you this question? Dwayne makes the point that, you know, we don’t allow juveniles to vote, no matter how brilliant they are. We don’t allow them access to alcohol, no matter how mature they may be – or to buy cigarettes, to do any number of other things. So why is it though, that we are willing to allow adult sentences to be imposed on juveniles when we wouldn’t even allow them to sit on the jury that would judge them. Why do you think that is?

Representative SIMPSON: I don’t know, but I think that’s one of the big swaying arguments in this case. It’s a very powerful argument in my mind, and he brings it up. I can’t tell you why I did anything like this. I had loving parents and a wonderful brother, Pete, and a good life in Cody, Wyoming. But I was a monster.

I had ugly thoughts about a lot of things. But the softening agents of life come into a person. And if you’re in the clink and you’re trying to do better, and you suddenly try to immerse yourself in history and beauty and literature, and those things brush away the abrasive elements of life.

MARTIN: Senator, you’ve been heard on this, in this brief, and I don’t know that people actually ever address the court directly other than through these briefs, but if you did have a chance to speak to the justices, what would you say?

Representative SIMPSON: I’d just say if you’re 50 years old and you get thrown in the clink for carjacking or hijacking or whatever, you know, when you’re 70, you’re probably not going to be the, you know, Exhibit A of good conduct. But if you’re 13, 14, and 15, and 16, and you’re dumb, stupid, abusive, arrogant, boneheaded, those things don’t last in my mind.

And I’ll tell you, people who will tell me that nobody changes at 16, I always say how about you pal? Let’s hear a little bit about your youth. Well, then they’ll say well, of course, I blew up the mailboxes with the M-80 firecrackers and, you know, did this and then they tell their cutesy little phrases as if they’ve never participated in any of that. They’re phonies. That’s a phony thing. So give a guy a second chance. That’s all it is.

MARTIN: Dwayne, what about you? Any final thought, if you could address the justices yourself, other than through your brief, which you’ve already done? What would you tell them?

Mr. BETTS: Yeah. If I could address the justices, I guess I would echo what the judge told me. The judge told me I’m under no illusion that sending you to prison will help. And judges know this. I would just say that we all know this to be true. I knew it to be true at 16, that I will be different at 21, at 25, at 30, and I’ve proven that I’ve become a different person.

And I just think that in this situation we don’t even have to rely on science. We don’t even have to rely on elaborate arguments. We can just rely on the fact of personal experience. We know that time changes people.

MARTIN: R. Dwayne Betts is a poet and the author of “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.” He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Alan K. Simpson is a former United States Senator from Wyoming. He was kind enough to join us from Cody, Wyoming.

Thank you so much for joining us gentleman.

Mr. BETTS: Very thank you.

Representative SIMPSON: A pleasure.

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Giving child offenders a chance

Letters to the Editor

I was deeply moved by former senator Alan K. Simpson’s Oct. 23 Washington Forum commentary, “A sentence too cruel for children,” although I might be an unexpected person to be so moved. Twenty-three years ago, my daughter, then pregnant, was murdered by two 15-year-old boys. But in the years since her death, I have come to believe that sentencing teenagers to life in prison without the possibility of parole does not serve victims, offenders or public safety.

There is no reason to deny child offenders the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed after they have served a significant amount of time to see whether they have changed and matured. Only those who have demonstrated their growth and proved they are rehabilitated would be considered for parole. As Mr. Simpson’s personal story shows, the potential for growth is enormous.

My family experienced unimaginable loss, but I still believe that young people — even those who have done terrible things — can be reformed. A permanent sentence should not be imposed on children whose characters are still forming.

And thank you to the senator for his candor in writing on this issue. His courage has served to strengthen my resolve to keep speaking out on this important matter.

Linda L. White, Magnolia, Tex.

The writer was among the signers of a friend-of-the-court brief in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, the two Supreme Court cases regarding the sentencing of juveniles.

Supreme Court to take up constitutionality of JLWOP

The recent sentencing by Circuit Court Judge Krista Marx of three Riviera Beach juveniles – Jakaris Taylor, now 18; Tommy Poindexter, 20, and Nathan Taylor, 18, to life in prison without the possibility of parole, will likely come under increasing scrutiny as Nov. 9, 2009; the date the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing arguments in Sullivan v. Florida/ Graham v. Florida, draws near. The justices will determine if the Eighth Amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment” has been violated in the case of juveniles sentenced to life in prison with-out parole for non-homicide crimes they committed before the age of 18.

The Dunbar rape case, presided over by Judge Marx, involved one of the more horrific crimes perpetrated by juveniles in Palm Beach County, Fla. history. A 35-year old mother and her 12-year-old son were beaten, sexually assaulted and robbed on June 18, 2007 in their apartment at Dunbar Village, a notorious, 226-unit public housing project in West Palm Beach, which had been over-taken by crime, crack dealers and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness.

Marx — who worked for Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office from 1985-1998 under district attorney Barry Krischer, and is well known for her harsh sentences — stated prior to imposing sentencing on the three: “I can only believe that none of you gentleman ever developed any moral code….And I have no confidence that if you are shipped off to the Department of Corrections you will find a moral compass there,” she added before promptly shipping them off to the Department of Corrections to begin serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

These three now join 77 other teens from Florida — out of a total of 109 juveniles world-wide — who were under 18 when they committed non-homicide crimes for which they will spend the rest of their lives be-hind bars. Incredibly, one state, Florida; accounts for a whopping 70 percent of all juvenile life sentences handed down worldwide, and is 19 times more likely to send juveniles to prison for life than comparable states in the U.S.

In Sullivan v. Florida, Joe Sullivan was 13 in 1989 when he and two other teens broke into an elderly Pensacola woman’s home robbing her of her jewelry and money. Later Sullivan, who was considered mentally challenged, returned by himself to the woman’s house where he beat and raped her. Subsequently, Sullivan was indicted and tried as an adult in a case that hinged on the flimsiest of evidence, and was rampant with racial overtones.

Sullivan was nevertheless found guilty and deemed by the judge to be “beyond help.” A year later he was sent to prison for life without parole, becoming the youngest convict in U.S. history to be sentenced to life without parole. Once in prison he was repeatedly sodomized.

Referring to Roper V. Simmons, a 2005 anti-death penalty ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court involving juveniles in which the death penalty was struck down as unconstitutional on Eighth Amendment grounds of “cruel and unusual punishment,” attorney Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (which has filed an amicus brief with the court on behalf of Sullivan), stated, “Roper understood and explained why such a judgment cannot rationally be passed on children below a certain age. They are unfinished products, human works-in-progress.

“The essential feature of a death sentence or a life-with-out-parole sentence is that it imposes a terminal, unchangeable, once-and-for-all judgment upon the whole life of a human being and declares that a hum-an being is forever unfit to be a part of civil society,” Steven-son pointed out, alluding to the 2005 ruling in which the justices concurred that juveniles simply lack the “psychological maturity” to understand the full magnitude of their crimes. “Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile” might not be a valid indicator of an “irretrievably depraved character,” the court wrote at the time.

“Their [teens] potential for growth and change is enormous,” said Stevenson. “Almost all of them will outgrow criminal behavior, and it is practically impossible to detect the few who will not. To date, they are the products of an environment over which they had no real control — passengers through narrow pathways in a world they never made.”

By contrast, Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar who is arguing the case for the state of Florida contends that it is the state’s prerogative to sentence juvenile offenders, whose crimes warrant it, to harsh punishment irrespective of age. “There is no consensus against life sentences for juveniles, particularly for heinous crimes such as sexual battery,” he wrote in court briefs.

Similarly, Charles D. Stimson — a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation which has been closely aligned with former VP Dick Cheney — is helping Florida’s Solicitor General prepare his case. It is Stimson’s belief that “some acts are so heinous and show such a callous disregard for human life even if their actions don’t result in death” that life in prison without the possibility of parole is appropriate.

That position has been taken up by other right-wing conservative groups including Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and the Cato Institute, which filed briefs with the high court stating, “The United States Congress and the overwhelming majority of states have adopted laws permitting juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. These laws reflect the will of the people and were enacted after due consideration of the nature of, and threats posed by, juvenile criminal activity in modern America, as well as the possibilities for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

“For this reason, given their steadfast commitment to the democratic process, the rule of law, and national sovereignty, [we urge] this Court…not to consider the non-binding provisions of international human rights treaties” or other international decrees “regarding the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole.”

Critics lambaste this ration-ale as another arrogant snub of national and international human rights organizations which have been critical of Florida’s draconian criminal justice policies for years, arguing that African American juveniles are not only disproportionately bearing the brunt of kids sentenced to life without parole, but are disproportionately represented at every other level of the criminal justice system as well. Clearly, redress is warranted. Otherwise, how can one justify, and continue this barbaric treatment, say critics, when there are so many blatantly biased cases in which the racial demo-graphics are obviously skewed, and it’s not just in Florida.

According to the Sentencing Project, in 22 states, over half of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole were African American. In three other states, Maryland, Alabama and Virginia that percentage goes up to over 80 percent.

Here in Florida, six counties with large Black populations: Hillsborough, Orange, St. Lucie, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade comprise 43 of the 77 juveniles serving life sentences without parole. Coincidental?+ Not by a long shot, critics assert.

The juvenile damned


Sentencing children to life without parole is cruel and unusual.

Lara Bazelon

October 12, 2009

After a one-day trial in 1989, Joe Sullivan was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was 13 years old.

Sullivan’s case arose in Florida, which forbids anyone that age from driving, voting, marrying without judicial consent or even riding a bicycle without a helmet. These prohibitions rest on the sound logic that teenagers are still children — too immature and impulsive to be trusted with such grave responsibilities and weighty choices. But when it comes to breaking the law, Florida inexplicably abandons this reasoning. If the transgression is considered sufficiently serious, the child is tried as an adult.

That is what happened to Joe Sullivan. Then it got worse. Following his conviction for the noncapital offense of sexual battery, the judge imposed the kind of punishment reserved for the most violent, incorrigible and irredeemable felons: permanent incarceration in an adult prison. With that sentence, Sullivan took his place among the juvenile damned, a tiny class of child offenders locked up for life in this country with no hope of release. There are a total of nine 13-year-olds in this group. When 14-year-old offenders are added, the number rises to 73.

Sullivan’s lawyers, a team led by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, hope to reduce that number to zero. On Nov. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear Sullivan’s case, will decide whether a life-without-parole sentence for someone younger than 18 amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The Court will also hear the companion case of Terrance Lamar Graham, who received a life-without-parole sentence for a noncapital offense at the age of 17. Because the punishment was imposed at a probation violation hearing, Graham was sentenced to die in prison without the benefit of a trial, a jury or proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Boiled down to its essence, the petitioners’ position is that a ruling in their favor is a logical extension of the Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the death penalty for children younger than 18 years of age on identical grounds. In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court declared: “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to obtain a mature understanding of his own humanity.”


Sullivan and Graham’s argument — that adherence to Roper‘s teachings requires the abolition of life-without-parole sentences for adolescents — is strong and persuasively presented. A punishment is “cruel” if it is excessive and therefore contravenes the “basic precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportional.” A punishment is “unusual” if it is implemented so rarely “that a national consensus has developed against it.” The petitioners have shown, relying in large part on empirical data, that permanently depriving adolescents of their liberty is both cruel and unusual.

In Roper, the Court found that capital punishment for juveniles was cruel in part because the inherent immaturity of child offenders makes their conduct “not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.” The Court noted that juvenile offenders have difficulty appreciating the long-term consequences of their actions and controlling their impulses. The short-sightedness and impetuosity of teenagers, combined with their greater susceptibility to the influences of their peers and their inability to extricate themselves from dangerous or negative surroundings, mean that juveniles have a “diminished capacity” that makes them less blameworthy — and thus less deserving of retribution — than their adult peers. Additionally, young adolescents are a work in progress — trying on and discarding a number of identities in the fraught and complicated process of growing up. Their adult selves may bear little physical or emotional resemblance to the angry, destructive teenagers they once were, undercutting the argument that they must be permanently removed from society.

The findings of neuroscientists and developmental psychologists lead to the same conclusion when applied to life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders like Sullivan and Graham: They are cruel within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Anyone who has ever raised a teenager, befriended one or been one knows the extent to which that teenager can be self-involved, present-oriented, misguided and overly influenced by a peer group. But it is also true that upwards of 90% of them outgrow it. An amicus brief filed by former juvenile offenders, who grew up to be a U.S. senator, an assistant U.S. attorney, a best-selling author and a Tony-nominated actor, makes this point powerfully. Life-without-parole sentences, had they been handed down in those cases, would have made these accomplished and productive lives impossible. By disallowing the great probability that young offenders will grow and change profoundly and for the better, life-without-parole sentences are not only pitiless, but are excessive in a way that the Eighth Amendment forbids.

The Court in Roper found that the death penalty for juveniles was unusual because 30 states outlawed it and even where it was “on the books,” it was seldom used. Similar statistics hold for life-without-parole sentences for 13- and 14-year-olds. The data assembled by Sullivan’s lawyers demonstrate that only six states have 13-year-old offenders serving life-without-parole sentences, and only 12 additional states have 14-year-olds doing so. When one looks beyond our borders to the practices of other nations — as the Court did in Roper — the numbers become even starker: “The United States,” Sullivan’s lawyers wrote, “stands alone in sentencing children to die in prison without hope of ever winning release.”

It is time the Court put an end to this shameful practice by applying Roper to life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Our evolving standards of decency demand nothing less.

Lara Bazelon will be the 2010-2012 civil justice clinic fellow at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

The Supreme Court and juveniles: International comparisons

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Supreme Court and Juveniles: International Comparisons

Bernard E. Harcourt

In response to the LA Times opinion piece on juvenile sentences of life imprisonment without parole—the Sullivan and Graham cases pending before the Supreme Court—the National Organization of Victims of “Juvenile Lifers” challenges the claim that the United States is the only jurisdiction to sentence minors to life imprisonment without parole—calling this “misinformation.” So I’ve done even more research, and, sadly (actually, I am not entirely sure how to feel), the conclusion sticks.

The best and most thorough information on international comparisons is at the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco School of Law. And the bottom line is that the US is now alone in this domain.

There were a number of earlier reports that Israel incarcerated several minors—seven juveniles, to be exact—to life without parole. The University of San Francisco had documented those cases in an extensive report in 2007 in which they also urged other countries, such as Australia, to clarify their legal prohibitions on juvenile LWOP. Another report issued in February 2008, that was written in part by the outstanding University of Chicago Mandel Clinic, also indicated that there were juveniles in Israel serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Following those reports, however, the University of San Francisco investigated the Israeli cases and confirmed that the juveniles in question are entitled to parole review. Here is the most recent information that the USF Center for Law and Global Justice provides:

“NEW INFORMATION ON JUVENILE LWOP GLOBAL PRACTICE FEBRUARY 2008–The Center has now confirmed with Israeli officials that children given life sentences, including those in the Occupied Territories which have been the subject of serious concern by the Center and other human rights groups, are entitled to parole review. There remains the concern that parole review is difficult to pursue and rarely granted. The new confirmation by Israel means that the United States, with 2,381 such cases, is now the only country in the world known to either issue the sentence or to have children serving life without parole.”

Given that none of the parties or amici in the Sullivan and Graham cases have been able to identify a single juvenile serving life imprisonment without parole outside our borders, and given also that Israel and the other mentioned countries (South Africa and Australia, for instance) have all signed on to Article 37 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child prohibiting juvenile LWOP sentences—only the United States and Somalia have not!—I think it is fair to conclude that the United States is indeed alone in this practice.

[Now, this naturally raises the next question: whether international norms should inform the Supreme Court’s consideration of domestic constitutional values. I frankly think this is a bit of a scholastic debate that seems to (overly) preoccupy some legal academics, a couple of Supreme Court justices, and most right-wing talk show hosts. The simple truth is that, for most human beings and for anyone who does not have an overly constricted view of constitutional interpretation, it’s telling that we are the only nation in the world who would be willing to impose life imprisonment without parole on a 13-year-old boy who is convicted of rape, a non-homicide offense. But then again, I’ll just let the Scholastics debate this one…]

Posted 11:42 AM by Bernard E. Harcourt [link]

The Supreme Court begins session with new issues and a new face


October 6, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court returned to session Monday with a new team member in newly-appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The court is expected to delve directly into several important cases that could re-shape the law as it relates to the separation of church and state, gun rights and free speech, among other areas. Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, and former Supreme Court reporter Eva Rodriguez, who now writes for The Washington Post, offer analysis on what can be expected in the current session.


Copyright © 2009 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


On to other news. The Supreme Court began its session on Monday with a new Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, and a new raft of cases that could re-shape and the separation of church and state, gun rights, free speech, and more. With us now to talk about the cases before the court is Eva Rodriguez. She’s a writer for The Washington Post editorial board. She’s a former Supreme Court reporter and a former editor-n-chief of Legal Times.

Also with us is Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. She’s a law professor of law at Columbia University and UCLA. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. EVA RODRIGUEZ (Writer former Supreme Court reporter, The Washington Post): Thanks.

Professor KIMBERLE WILLIAMS CRENSHAW (Law, Columbia University, UCLA): I’m happy to be here.

MARTIN: Eva Rodriguez I want to begin with you. You began your Sunday column with the quote that “Here’s the truth, a lot of important, really important Supreme Court cases would put most of us to sleep” end quote. But, you say that this session – not so much. How so? There are some headline grabbers here?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: And they are and they’re both interesting and the kind of cases that would trigger natural conversations over dinner on a Saturday night. They involve things that we as human beings and as citizens of this country care about, you know, whether we could lock up a juvenile for life without parole. Whether, you know, there is a right to have a cross on public land.

All of these kind of things that, you know, sort of this informed intelligent, you know, people we would naturally debate, as opposed to the constitutionality of an accounting board.

MARTIN: Oh dear.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Don’t go there.

MARTIN: Don’t go there, okay, but just going back a little bit the Court customarily doesn’t hear an argument before the first Monday in October, but there was an exception this year for a campaign finance case? What’s the issue here and why did community here in D.C. because actually the Court had heard this case earlier in the Spring and we were expecting in June or July a decision. Instead, the justices has said well, never mind we want to re-hear this case and by the way, we want to address different questions. And what happened is, they went from a really, you know, ishky-pishky(ph) case in spring to a bomb in the – in the fall.

And it goes to the heart of whether, basically, we can regulate how much money if any corporations may give to campaigns. It was rare also – I mean exceedingly rare – that they heard the case in September and not, you know, after the first Monday in October, when they usually start. So this was weird all around.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting. And Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, there’s a civil rights case that’s a little bit under the radar this term but you nevertheless feel is important. That’s Lewis(ph) v. Chicago, and like that blockbuster Riche(ph) case of last session that we all talked about, it involves alleged racial discrimination in hiring firefighters.

In this case, an appeals court overturned a ruling favorable to black firefighters on technical grounds. What’s the issue in this case, and why do you feel that’s so important?

Ms. CRENSHAW: Well, you know, this issue is very similar to the Ledbetter case because on the substance, on the merits of the case, the plaintiffs were able to prove that the hiring practices were, in fact, discriminatory. So this case is pretty much like Riche in that the firefighters are making an argument. This time, there was actually a case. A court decided that they had prevailed in proving that the use of particular kinds of tests discriminated against potential firefighters.

The problem, according to the Court of Appeals, was that the case was initiated late. In other words, you have 300 days from the injury, the first injury, to actually file the case. The plaintiff’s lawyer filed the case within 300 days of the promotions that were based on the test. He did not file it within 300 days of announcing the test. And the Court of Appeals has determined that the time that they should have filed it was when the tests were announced, as opposed to when the promotions actually commenced.

Now, why is this important? Now, this is a technical case. This is part of the Roberts court’s kind of legacy. This is what they do very well. They manage technical issues that have huge substantive consequences. That’s what they did with Ledbetter, and this was overturned basically by a congressional action.

This is going to be a similar kind of case. The real question is: Is this sending a message that the court should be fairly narrow and circumscribed when the question is technical questions that preclude plaintiffs from actually getting into court? This is a very significant concern on the part of those who feel that the courts have been pushing certain kind of plaintiffs out of court altogether.

MARTIN: I understand what you’re saying. In the Ledbetter case, for people who don’t remember it, it was a question of a question of how soon after Lilly Ledbetter found out that she had been a victim of vast pay disparities could she go to court to seek a remedy. And the original law had a very narrow window, and that’s why Congress stepped in. And that was one of the first bills that President Obama signed when he took office.

Briefly, professor, there’s also this case where the court will explore whether the sentence of life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment for juvenile offenders. Can you tell us about that?

Ms. CRENSHAW: Yes. So there are two cases, companion case, Graham versus Florida and Sullivan versus Florida, and basically it takes up a concern that the court looked at a few years ago. This had to do with whether giving the death penalty to defendants who committed their crimes while they were juveniles violates basically not only our Constitution but broader human rights idea against cruel and unusual punishment. And Justice Kennedy provided the key vote that held that it in fact was unconstitutional.

So now the question is: If a juvenile commits a crime and is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, is that also cruel and unusual. And it’s important to note that we are the only country in the world that has any juveniles who are currently incarcerated without the possibility of parole. It’s 2,500 or so defendants. And the United States was the only country basically to oppose a United Nations efforts to render this a human rights violation. So the question is whether that earlier case will apply to this, whether Justice Kennedy’s general opposition to the death penalty would carry over to life without the possibility of parole.

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re talking about the new session of the Supreme Court with law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and Eva Rodriguez, an editorial writer for The Washington Post, a former Supreme Court reporter and former editor-in-chief of Legal Times.

Eva, the court is hearing arguments today, as I understand it, that ostensibly is about animal cruelty but actually is a free speech case. Can you tell us about that?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, it involves a man who describes himself as a dog trainer and a dog lover. He happens to love pit bulls, and he produces these videos, hour-long, two-hour-long videos that he describes as educational on how not to train your dog, how not to, you know, let your dog run wild, but how to use your dog to ward off predators like coyotes or to hunt wild boar. Well, in the process, he’s included some pretty gruesome footage in this, and…

MARTIN: Of the consequences of mis-training or poor training?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: That’s how he claims. That’s how he frames it, okay? The Humane Society and others say, you know, that’s just not true, and he just likes to, you know, show gruesome film.

So the question here, though, is it a violation? You know, he was prosecuted. Let’s put it this way. He was prosecuted under a law that says you cannot show or peddle material that shows a live animal being tortured, maimed or killed. And the question is: Does that law basically violate his First Amendment right to, you know, to show these films?

I think it’s a tough question. Look, all of these cases are tough. They wouldn’t be at the Supreme Court if there wasn’t disagreement, and there are legitimate arguments on both sides. But I think at the end of the day that as much as we hate what this man shows and possibly does that there’s a First Amendment right for him to basically, you know, archive this on film.

MARTIN: Interesting. And there’s another case involving the separation of church and state that I think a lot of people will have heard about. It involves a cross that members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars placed in California back in 1934, land that later became part of the Mojave National Preserve. What’s the issue here?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: The issue here is: Is it a violation of the establishment clause to have, to allow, for the federal government to allow this cross on the land? You know, we’re supposed to be a government where the government does not embrace any one particular form of religion. So by allowing a cross on federal land, is the government violating that?

Now, there has been a lot of funky stuff that’s happened in this case, including an attempted land swap, where the government said okay, we’ll give the VFW, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the acre on which this cross stands, and we’ll get another parcel of land. So hence, you know, the cross now stands on private grounds.

Well, the ACLU and others challenging this case say, you know, that’s a bogus transaction, and you’re just trying to – you know, you’re playing with us here.

MARTIN: Well, very, interesting, and there are a number of interesting cases we don’t have a chance to talk about today. We’re going to have to have you ladies back. But before we let you go, professor, I want to ask you about the newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor. She made history when she was sworn in as the first Latina to sit on the high court. She was unusually outspoken, some people thought, for a new justice. Is it unusual for…?

Ms. CRENSHAW: Oh, it was so refreshing to hear it. You know, Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Sotomayor is a rock star now. So pretty much everything she does draws a lot of attention, which I think is good for the court in general and for the public more broadly, but it’s just fascinating. In the two days that she sat, she’s talked more than Clarence Thomas has in a period of years. So we’ve got a whole new voice, literally, on the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: And we’re going to have a chance to have your voices back because we have more to talk about. Thank you. Kimberle Williams Crenshaw is a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University, she joined us from New York; and Eva Rodriguez is a writer for The Washington Post editorial board, a former Supreme Court reporter, former editor-in-chief of Legal Times. She was here with me in Washington. Ladies, thank you both so much.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

Ms. CRENSHAW: It was a pleasure.

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MARTIN: The moms are next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Michel Martin.

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Former Republican Senator and Charles ‘Roc’ Dutton want to end JLWOP

When he was in high school, he helped burn down a federal building. He shot and killed a cow for fun. He stole. He violated his probation, and one night after a bar fight, he struck a police officer.

In his own words, he was a “monster.” If he had received the fullest possible sentence for his crimes, he would have spent 20 years or more, in jail. If he’d been sentenced to life in prison without parole, as some 13- and 14-year-old Americans are, he would never have gone on to college or law school. He would never have served 18 years in the U.S. Senate.

His name is Alan K. Simpson, the Wyoming Republican, whom, when he left the Senate in 1997, few would have recognized as the high school boy who had so often been in trouble with the law. He credits that night spent in jail after “belting a cop,” (the girlfriend who became his wife of 55 years refused to bail him out), as the turning point that changed his life.

Simpson knows that teenagers, even the toughest ones, can turn their lives around. He’s joined in an amicus brief other accomplished men—including Emmy-winning actor Charles “Roc” Dutton and author R. Dwayne Betts—both of whom were convicted of crimes as juveniles, and then turned their lives around. They’re asking the Supreme Court to strike down the practice of sentencing teenagers to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses.

This is one of the most important cases to come before the Supreme Court—which began its new term Monday. The two consolidated Florida cases that bring this issue before the court expose the practice in the Sunshine State of deciding that the lives of teenagers are over before they’ve really begun. In Graham v. Florida, Terrance Graham was sentenced to life without parole for an armed robbery he committed when he was 16. Joe Sullivan was convicted of committing sexual battery when he was 13.

Just five years ago, the Supreme Court decided in Roper v. Simmons that the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Graham and Sullivan ultimately ask the court to determine whether imposing a form of death on teenagers for non-homicide offenses is similarly unconstitutional. There are currently nine individuals serving life-without-parole terms for offenses they committed when they were 13 or 14. Eight of the nine are black.

When the Supreme Court decides later this year whether a state can constitutionally deny teenagers the kind of second chance that enabled Alan K. Simpson and R. Dwayne Betts to turn their lives around, it will not only decide the fate of nine “lifers.” The court’s decision will also define its character and that of our country for years to come.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.