Life sentences and juvenile offenders — what is fair and right?

A 13-year-old boy is not an adult.

Yet when a 13-year-old boy commits a heinous crime, our court system in the U.S. can treat him like an adult and lock him up for life.

That was the case for Joe Harris Sullivan, who was convicted 20 years ago in a Florida court of beating and raping an elderly woman after an in-home robbery — all when he was 13 years old.  He’d been in trouble with the law before and at such a young age he had a substantial rap sheet.  The judge in the case took his 17 prior offenses into account at Sullivan’s sentencing, where he was committed to prison under a life sentence with no chance for parole.

prison bars being held by a prisoner in cell

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The appropriateness of that conviction is now at the heart of a review before the U.S. Supreme Court, according to recent story in The Washington Post. A similar Florida case  is also being reviewed separately by the Supreme Court involving a boy who was 16 when he helped several other youths rob a restaurant.  While on probation the next year, that boy, Terrance Jamar Graham, participated in an armed burglary.  The judge looked at Graham’s criminal record and sentenced him to life without parole, under the assumption that he would never change his criminal ways.

Neither of these crimes are minor.  They are abhorrent.  They were violent. They are inexcusable. At the same time, though, they were committed by children who were 13 and 16 when the crimes occurred.  Should these children have received life prison sentences with no chance ever for parole?

That’s the issue that will be addressed by the Supreme Court.

The non-profit, Montgomery, Ala.-based group, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), represents Sullivan in the case.  The EJI provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who may have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. The group’s lawyers see these kinds of cases all too often.

The key issue in both cases “is whether the fundamental principles supporting a 2005 Supreme Court decision that declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles should also be applied to life imprisonment sentences meted out to juveniles convicted of nonlethal crimes,”  according to a news story in The Christian Science Monitor last May.

In that 2005 case, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that juveniles could not be given a sentence as harsh as the death penalty. In the majority opinion in the case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character,” according to The Washington Post. “It would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

These cases are filled with tragedies on every side, from the victims to the lost lives and futures of the two boys who carried these crimes out some 20 years ago.

But the answer is clear that despite the severity of the crimes, both were committed by boys who certainly lacked the maturity and experience to stop them from their heinous acts.  Were the Florida courts wrong earlier to mete out life terms without parole? Could those judges have known with certainty that the youth before them were not capable of being rehabilitated? Should we as a society accept that life without parole is acceptable for criminals at so young an age?

These are not easy questions, but the bottom line is that a person who makes a huge mistake as a child and commits a crime should at least have a chance somehow to make something out of their life someday.  As a society, as human beings, there must be ways for people to heal, to be rehabilitated, to try again.

Yes, they may still fail. But we as a society fail even more if we don’t provide some mechanism for compassion, for healing, for betterment in the lives of young people who make grave mistakes when they are just kids.

The Supreme Court’s decisions in the two cases are expected next July. We hope they are appropriate decisions that prohibit U.S. courts from sentencing minors to life sentences without parole in the future.