Life without parole for juvenile offenders a necessary option

By William Snyder

When the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, seated on their elevated platform, decide the matter of Joe Sullivan and the issue of life sentences without parole for juveniles, they will do so from the air-conditioned safety of their wood-paneled chambers.

The presentation of the Sullivan case will lack critical essential elements. The judges will not have seen Sullivan’s 72-year-old victim as she lay on the floor of her home hemorrhaging from the brutal rape she endured. They will not see the faces of her loved ones huddling in the waiting area of the emergency room as surgeons raced to repair her internal injuries and save her life. They will not feel the fear she lived with every waking moment of her life. She never again closed her eyes at night and slept peacefully.

The original judge who heard the facts of the case stated at sentencing, “(t)he juvenile system has been utterly incapable of doing anything with Mr. Sullivan” even though Sullivan “was given opportunity after opportunity to upright himself and take advantage of the second and third chances he’s been given.” The judge therefore concluded that “the protection of the community requires adult disposition” due to Sullivan’s violent record, and that assignment to the juvenile justice system would not adequately protect the public or assist in rehabilitating Sullivan.

Sullivan’s judge astutely coalesced the argument when he contended that juvenile sanctions would utterly fail to protect society from Joe Sullivan. And herein dwells the essence of this entire argument. Should a state’s criminal justice system be empowered to use its discretion and in rare instances sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison? I contend that the answer is unequivocally yes.

America strives to be a just nation and long recognized that juveniles, for many reasons, must be treated differently than adults. I fully agree with this premise. There are instances, though, when that concept must yield to a higher moral imperative.

If a young adult, weeks shy of his 18th birthday, walks into a day-care center and leaves a backpack laden with explosives, which he subsequently detonates from a safe distance, killing and maiming dozens of children, should that offender be immune from the full spectrum of adult sanctions? Lee Boyd Malvo was 17 when he aided and abetted John Allen Muhammad in killing 10 people during the D.C. sniper serial murders. Was it not just and fitting to sentence him to life in prison?

The criminal justice system exists for two primary reasons: protecting the innocent and providing justice for victims and their survivors. The state courts must have the option of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment when no other alternative is reasonable. Without that prerogative, the mission of the court system cannot be fully attained.

In short, federal and state individual criminal justice systems have “accorded different weights” to the goals of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation, and are entitled to do so without running afoul of the Constitution.

If the Supreme Court wants to replace the Legislature’s policy-making rights in this case, where will they draw the line? Is a 30- or 40-year sentence subject to the same attack? If the federal court supplants states’ rights in this case, the unraveling of our entire criminal justice system is possible.

Snyder, R-Stuart, represents the southern Treasure Coast in the Florida House. He retired as a major for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.