HOT TOPIC: Harsh sentences for juveniles

Letter from John Bajger, Assistant Florida attorney general

If crime isn’t murder, life without parole is too much

Florida sentences juveniles more harshly than any state and any country. Worldwide, roughly 100 juveniles are serving life sentences without parole for non-homicide, felony offenses, and 77 of these juveniles are imprisoned in Florida.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in two cases about whether this practice violates the constitution as cruel and unusual punishment. Both cases are from Florida. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, Floridians should decry such sentences as intolerable.

In both cases, the defendants were sentenced as juveniles to life in prison without parole. Terrance Graham was 16 years old when he was sentenced to life for violating his armed burglary probation. Joe Sullivan was convicted of robbery and sexual battery, but he was only 13 years old when sentenced. Avion Lawson is the only Dunbar Village attacker who is still a juvenile. He will be sentenced next month. The other three, all but one of whom was a juvenile at the time of the crime, received life sentences.

In 2005, ruling in the case of Roper vs. Simmons, the Supreme Court declared that sentencing juveniles to death was unconstitutional. In Roper, the court recognized that juveniles are inherently different than adults; their identity is unformed, they are susceptible to outside influences — such as peer pressure — and are often incapable of fully comprehending the moral reprehensibility of their actions. The court found that the fundamental differences between juveniles and adults made sentencing juveniles to death cruel and unusual punishment.

For the same reason, life sentences without parole for juveniles are “freakishly rare,” as Sullivan notes in his brief. Sullivan argues that there are only nine people in the U.S. “under life without parole sentences for offenses committed at age 13.” Graham makes a similar argument, noting that “he is one of a handful of juveniles, in any state, who has been sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense such as armed burglary.” In fact, he points out that his sentence is harsher than those of most adults convicted of violent crimes.

Many proponents of tough sentencing for juveniles ignore Roper’s distinction between adults and juveniles and advocate punishment as the ultimate goal of all sentencing. State Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, subscribes to this view, commenting in a recent New York Times article that “sometimes a 15-year-old has a tremendous appreciation for right and wrong … I think it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to say that it was patently illegal or improper to send a youthful offender to life without parole. At a certain point, juveniles cross the line, and they have to be treated as adults and punished as adults.”

Clearly, juvenile crime is a problem that Florida cannot ignore. However, the problem must be addressed in a humane manner that is consistent with universal norms of justice. As a civilized society that believes in the sanctity of all human life, we cannot permit our criminal justice system to throw away the lives of juveniles as irretrievably bad. Instead, we must begin from the premise that all juveniles are redeemable.

By focusing on punishment alone, the system is blind to factors that should mitigate juvenile sentences. As a result, many juveniles are sentenced unjustly, as with Sullivan and Graham. For example, Sullivan suffers from a mental disability. In its amicus brief, the Disability Rights Legal Center notes that “a disproportionate number of juvenile offenders suffer from disabilities.” In addition, the Sullivan and Graham cases, and others like them throughout the state, contain a disturbing racial aspect. As Sullivan states in his brief, “All of the 13-14-year-olds serving life without parole for non-homicide offenses are African-American.”

This is why the rest of the world rejects sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, as Amnesty International emphasizes in its amicus brief. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., has introduced a sensible measure (House Resolution 2289) that would require parole hearings 15 years after a juvenile is sentenced to life, and every three years after. It is high time for Florida to do the same.

In 1924, Clarence Darrow took a stand against the death penalty in a case involving 19-year-old Nathan Leopold and 18-year-old Richard Loeb, stating: “I am pleading for the future, for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”

Nearly 80 years later, the Supreme Court adopted Darrow’s vision of the future in Roper, and the justices should heed his plea once more and declare that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional. If the court does not, Floridians should insist that the state end this unjust practice.


West Palm Beach