In 2003, Terrance Jamar Graham and two friends broke into a Jacksonville, Florida restaurant and tried to rob the manager at gunpoint. When the manager refused to hand over the cash, Graham and his gang beat him with a steel bar. Graham was caught, pleaded guilty and got three years’ probation on the condition that he stay out of trouble. One year later, Graham and another pair of accomplices forced their way into an apartment and robbed two men. He was subsequently captured and convicted, but this time he was given life in prison with no chance of parole.
In another incident that also took place in Florida, Joe Harris Sullivan broke into the home of a 72-year-old woman to steal her money and jewelry. The woman was not home at the time of the robbery. Later that day, Sullivan returned to the home and brutally raped the woman. The victim was so battered that she required extensive corrective surgery. Sullivan was captured, tried and convicted of the crime; he too was given life in prison with no chance of parole.
These two crimes have become, according to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! program, the focus of a Supreme Court Debate. The issue is not one of guilt or innocence, but of whether the sentences constituted cruel and unusual punishment, since, at the time the crimes were committed, Graham was 16 years old and Sullivan was 13.
Amy Goodman: …the Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a pair of cases to decide whether it is unconstitutionally harsh to sentence juveniles to life-without-parole. There are more than 1,700 people in the United States who will spend the rest of their life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles. Some were as young as thirteen when they committed the crime. No other nation has even a single person serving such a sentence.
Goodman’s last sentence requires some clarification. While the number of juvenile offenders serving life-without-parole sentences is small as compared to adults in the overall prison population receiving the same sentence, Goodman’s assertion that this situation does not exist in other countries is comparing apples and oranges. In other countries, minors committing similar offenses are more likely to be executed than sentenced to life. Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan, for example, have all executed minors within the last ten years for non-capital offenses, according to records kept by Amnesty International.
In the U.S. debate, Florida and 19 other states have argued that such stiff penalties effectively deter juvenile offenses. Victims’ rights advocates, such as the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, believe the horror of a crime is not lessened by the youthfulness of a perpetrator.
Those arguing against the life sentences believe that states went overboard in devising punishments for minors as part of the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1980s. Marsha Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, for example, sees the current debate as an opportunity:
…for us as a society, through our laws and how the Supreme Court interprets them, to acknowledge the obvious and profound differences between kids and adults.
Countering this argument, lawyers for those siding with Florida, including the National District Attorneys Association, emphasize that “already-hardened” youths (such as Sullivan and Graham) commit heinous assaults “with full knowledge of the wrongfulness of their actions.”
The judge who sentenced Graham–who was already a multiple recidivist–was not at all reticent when it came to telling Graham exactly what the future held for him as a consequence of his actions:
Given your escalating pattern of criminal conduct, it is apparent … that you have decided that this is the way you are going to live your life, and that the only thing I can do now is to try to protect the community from your actions.
Are there some crimes that are so morally reprehensible and damaging to the victims (such as Sullivan’s violent assault on a 72 year old), that the life-in-prison-without-parole sentence should be imposed–even if the offender is under 18 years old?
It’s now up to the Supreme Court to decide.