At Supreme Court, no accord over life sentences for juveniles
After two hours of arguments Monday, Supreme Court justices seem split on whether states can mete out life sentences to juveniles who aren't killers.
A sharply divided US Supreme Court on Monday debated whether to invalidate state laws that permit juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.Skip to next paragraph
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It is a potential watershed decision. But after two hours of arguments in two different cases, it was unclear whether a majority of the high court's nine justices were in agreement on the issue.
The two cases, Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, ask the justices to consider whether sentencing a juvenile to spend the rest of his or her life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.
"It is unquestionably unusual," said Bryan Stevenson, whose client went to prison for life at age 13. "To state to a child of 13 that you will die in prison is cruel," he told the justices.
Joe Sullivan was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of beating, raping, and robbing a 72-year-old woman. He was 13 at the time of the crime.
Terrance Graham was sentenced to life without parole after pleading guilty to armed burglary and assault and after having his probation revoked for participating in a series of armed home invasion robberies. He was 17 at the time.
Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar defended the sentences, saying they reflected a balance struck by state lawmakers and Florida judges. "It goes to the core of state sovereignty," he said, for a state to develop and administer its own justice system.
The heart of the argument is that because juveniles are more impulsive, less mature, and less able to appreciate the full magnitude of their wrongdoing, they are less morally culpable for their crimes. If they are less culpable, the argument goes, they should not be punished as harshly as adults.
A second, parallel argument is that because a juvenile's character is not yet fully formed, it is impossible for experts to accurately predict which young offenders will grow out of their violent, unlawful behaviors and which will not.
Mr. Graham's lawyer Bryan Gowdy argued that this uncertainty about which juvenile offenders are capable of reform justifies a categorical ban on life without parole sentences for juveniles in nonhomicide crimes.
"We can't tell which adolescents are going to change and which won't," he said. But he added, "Graham at 47 will not be the person he was at 17."