Harcourt on Life Sentences for Juveniles

Sending Children to Prison for Life
Bernard E. Harcourt
The Los Angeles Times
October 5, 2009

This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in two cases, Sullivan vs. Florida and Graham vs. Florida, that will decide whether it's cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a 13-year-old or a 17-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The court should follow its prior reasoning in Roper vs. Simmons, a 2005 ruling that held the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional, and similarly draw a bright line at 18 years of age for imposing life sentences without parole.

The extreme rarity with which sentences of life in prison without parole are imposed on juveniles -- particularly younger juveniles -- shows that this punishment is out of step with American values and society. In the United States, only Joe Sullivan in Florida is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a non-homicide offense, committed at 13. That qualifies as "unusual" under any definition of the word.

The other case on this issue to be heard this term, also from Florida, involves a conviction for armed burglary, again not a homicide. Yet Terrance Graham, who was 17 at the time, was given the maximum sentence that a juvenile convicted for murder would receive.