Monday, November 9, 2009

Supreme Court to review life without parole for juveniles

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review whether sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole, for a non-homicide offense, violates the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. On its face this issue would appear to have little impact on Pennsylvania. There are no juvenile offenders serving life without parole (LWOP) in Pennsylvania for non-homicide offenses.

However, Pennsylvania does have more juvenile lifers, convicted of murder, than any other state, and it appears as though the reasoning used to strike down the death penalty for juvenile killers will be used to buttress the argument to ban LWOP for juvenile non-killers. As the distinction between killer and non-killer begins to blur the potential impact on Pennsylvania becomes obvious.

According to a recent study conducted by Florida State University there are 2,574 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States. In 39 states, juveniles can be sentenced to LWOP. Fourteen states allow a minor to be tried as an adult at any age. Pennsylvania leads the nation with 375 juvenile offenders serving life in prison. Except for a handful of countries and literally a handful of international offenders, America is the only nation in the world that has juveniles serving LWOP.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of juveniles committing serious violent crime nationwide dropped by nearly 61-percent between 1993 and 2005, yet the percentage of juveniles receiving LWOP increased by 216-percent. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, fifty-nine percent of juveniles serving life in Pennsylvania had no previous criminal record and one in four were convicted of felony murder.

Only eight states have laws that permit the imposition of LWOP for non-homicide juvenile offenders. Across the country there are 109 non-homicide juvenile offenders serving life sentences. Seventy-percent of those offenders are in the state of Florida. Appropriately, the litigants that have made their way to the United States Supreme Court, Terrance Graham and Joe Sullivan, were both sentenced by Florida courts.

Terrance Graham, at age 16, committed an armed robbery at a restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. Graham, and an accomplice, beat and robbed the restaurant owner. Graham was sentenced as an adult to 12 months confinement in a county detention facility to be followed by three years probation. Shortly after his release, Graham, along with two accomplices, committed an armed home invasion. Graham held a gun to the head of the home owner while his co-defendants searched and robbed the home. After a second botched robbery on the same evening, one of Graham’s accomplices was shot. Graham left his wounded co-conspirator at the front door of the hospital and fled. He was subsequently involved in a high speed chase with police. He crashed his vehicle, fled on foot, and was later apprehended.

Graham’s probation was violated and he was sentenced to life in prison for armed robbery and 15 years for attempted armed robbery. The Florida First District Court of Appeals affirmed his sentence and the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. On November 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Graham’s case (08-7412) as well as Sullivan’s case (08-7621). Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison by a Florida court for a robbery and rape he committed at the age of thirteen.

Graham’s attorneys suggest that his sentence of life without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual punishment pursuant to the Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They further suggest that the case is fully resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005). Roper was the landmark decision that banned the death penalty for juveniles. The Roper court ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on any offender who committed a crime while under the age of 18. The decision overruled Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), a precedent set 16 years earlier which upheld the death penalty for juveniles 16 years and older.

In Roper, the court based its decision on “evolving standards of decency.” The court ruled that a “national consensus” against the death penalty for juveniles had evolved since its decision in Stanford. Interestingly, the day that Stanford was decided, the court had also upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders, Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989). Yet, in 2002, applying the “evolving standards of decency” test, the high court in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) ruled that executing the mentally retarded violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court has also recently banned the death penalty for non-homicide adult convictions, Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S.____ (2008).

In Roper, the court noted the infrequency in which the death penalty was applied to juvenile offenders. At the time only 20 states had laws permitting the imposition of the death penalty for juveniles. However, only six of those states had executed a juvenile since the decision in Stanford and five states had abolished the death penalty for juveniles all together. Roper also acknowledged international opinion, “The United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile penalty. It does not lessen fidelity to the Constitution or pride in its origins to acknowledge that the express affirmation of certain fundamental rights by other nations and peoples underscores the centrality of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom.”

Could the U.S. Supreme Court apply the “evolving standards of decency” test to Graham and Sullivan? Only eight states have juveniles serving LWOP for non-homicide offenses. Six of those states have six or fewer juvenile offenders serving life sentences. It would appear that the consensus in America is certainly against imposing LWOP for non-homicide convictions.

Graham has argued that life without parole is nothing more than “a delayed or a disguised death sentence.” Some agree that LWOP is not unlike the death penalty. Paul Wright, a former lifer, told the New York Times, "It's a death sentence by incarceration. You're trading a slow form of death for a faster one."

Trying to extend death penalty analysis to non-death penalty cases is tricky business. The U.S. Supreme Court has always recognized that the death penalty is “in a class by itself.” Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

The death penalty and LWOP are very different sentences. There are no second chances, clemency or new trials after the death penalty is carried out. After discovered evidence means little to an offender who has long since gone to his final resting place. Perhaps more importantly, LWOP has been promoted as a viable alternative to the death penalty. The decision in Roper resulted in the commutation of 72 juvenile death penalties; a significant majority of those juveniles on death row were re-sentenced to LWOP.

If LWOP is unconstitutional for juvenile non-homicide offenses, how long before the constitutionality of LWOP for juvenile killers is challenged? How far off are arguments that a 40-year or even 20-year sentence for a juvenile offender is cruel and unusual punishment.

Graham and Sullivan cannot merely be construed as a narrow issue concerning LWOP for juvenile non-homicide offenders. The implications are potentially enormous. The significance of a decision banning juvenile LWOP for non-homicide offenses, in the context of the high court’s recent narrowing of punishment for juveniles, cannot be overstated.

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