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Posted by on Nov 7, 2009 in Society | 10 comments

Should Kids Get Life Without Parole?

My answer is NO! The Supreme Court will hear appeals from two juvenile offenders on Monday arguing the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids life in prison for crimes other than homicide. (The court ruled in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for any minor who committed murder.)

SCOTUSblog has a comprehensive preview of the cases which includes this analysis:

The critical issue for the Court, having already decided that there are constitutional differences between juvenile and adult criminals, is whether that difference counts the same – or less – when the punishment a youth faces is not execution. It is not likely to abandon altogether its reliance just four years ago upon research data supporting those differences. But it must now reexamine that data as it considers whether life with no chance of parole can really be distinguished from death, and, perhaps a more difficult inquiry, does the distinction between the two vary with the age of the offender?

If the meaning of the Eighth Amendment is the underlying constitutional question, the closely related moral question for the Justices is whether a denial of any chance at rehabilitation – or future freedom – is close to being the loss of “life,” at least in some dimensions of what “life” means. As judges, the Court’s members will want to be comfortable defining the consequences of that denial in constitutional terms, but they will feel the tug of the moral question as they do so.

There are about 2,500 juveniles (ranging in age from 13 to 17) currently sentenced to life in prison in the United States. According to Human Rights Watch, in the rest of the world there are about a dozen.

There are just over 100 people in the world serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as a juvenile in which no one was killed. All are in the United States. Seventy-seven are in Florida.

Why Florida?

Mr. Snyder, the state legislator, put it this way: “Instead of the Sunshine State, it was the Gun-shine State.”

In response, the state moved more juveniles into adult courts, increased sentences and eliminated parole for capital crimes.

Thomas K. Petersen, a semi-retired judge in Miami who spent a decade hearing cases in juvenile court, said that the state’s reaction was out of proportion to the problem and that it has lately failed to take account of changed circumstances. […]

Shay Bilchik, who served as a state prosecutor in Miami from 1977 to 1993 and is now the director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown, said the state took a wrong turn… He said later research convinced him that his office’s approach was much too aggressive and had not served to deter crime.

“My biggest regret,” Mr. Bilchik said, “is that during the time I was in the prosecutor’s office, we were under the false impression that we were insuring greater public safety when we were not.”

Newsweek:

The cases the Supreme Court will hear are Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, involving cases of rape and robbery by a then 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, respectively. If the court determines these sentences are unconstitutional, Joe Sullivan, now 33, and Terrance Graham, now 22, currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, could each be granted a new hearing to determine a revised sentence.

If the court finds the sentence unconstitutional, it could give them the right to go before a parole board to determine whether they are fit to assimilate back into society. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, human-rights advocates are quick to note. Some juvenile offenders could still be forced to spend life behind bars, while others are set free early. “We don’t let them vote or enter into contracts, but we are subjecting kids to sentences that are for a mature adult,” says de la Vega. “I think the red flag is, How could we be the only country in the world doing this? Why are we treating our kids so badly?”

RELATED: From the devastatingly powerful 2007 Frontline documentary, When Kids Get Life, this clip on culpable adolescent brains & the Supermax. It describes a Colorado parole hearing that “does not permit participation of private counsel” and in which testimony is confidential and “shall not be revealed to the offender at any time”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEs-85iK5b0&feature=player_embedded

Watch online. The documentary tells five stories from one state; Colorado.

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