Update: U.S. Supreme Court makes the right decision by banning teen life sentences without parole in non-murder cases

Back in November, we wrote here that sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without any chance for parole is cruel and unusual punishment and should be outlawed when their crimes don’t include murder.

Across our nation in non-homicide cases, 129 teens are serving life sentences without parole, including 77 in Florida, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal. No teens in Pennsylvania are serving such sentences. In cases that do involve murder, more than 2,000 other juveniles are serving life without parole in prisons across the nation, according to the story. Those sentences will remain unchanged.

Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/Zemdega

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court moved our nation one step forward on this issue by ruling that states cannot sentence teenage criminals to life without parole, at least in cases where a homicide has not been committed, according to a story Monday in The New York Times. The court ruled in a 5 to 4 vote that such a life sentence without parole violates a teen’s rights.

That was the correct decision, but maybe it didn’t go far enough.

It still just skims the surface on whether a teen should ever be allowed to be sentenced to a life term in the first place. If someone commits a crime that doesn’t include homicide, however heinous as a teen, are they fully aware of the consequences of their actions and is it not possible that they could eventually be rehabilitated and returned to society without such a dire sentence?

This difficult question and polarizing question is one we should look at very closely.

In our post here in November, we wrote that “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.”

The Supreme Court reviewed the case of a Florida youth, Terrance Jamar Graham, who earlier participated in an armed burglary while out on parole for a restaurant robbery he committed with several other teens when he was 16. The original trial 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.

The same conclusion was reached in a different case by a another Florida judge in the sentencing 20 years ago for Joe Harris Sullivan, who was convicted 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.

The Supreme Court’s decision on the Graham case acknowledges that although these crimes are horrific, it is unfair to essentially give up on the life of a person so young by throwing them in prison forever. The court ruled 6 to 3 to reverse Graham’s sentence based on the merits of his case.

”The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion, according to the story in The New York Times. ”This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.”

Of course, there’s more to the story.

By ruling more narrowly on the larger issue of whether a teen could still face a life without parole sentence if a homicide is committed as part of their crime, the Supreme Court will still allow teens to be imprisoned forever in those cases.

That’s still leaves some questions, though. In non-homicide cases, should teens ever be able to be sentenced to life imprisonment in any event? That seems hugely harsh for someone so young, regardless of their crimes. What happens if one of these kids truly does make amends later in his or her life? Should they never be given another chance to live life outside of prison and try to give some sense of normalcy to their own existence? Are we giving up on them completely?

That just seems wrong.

The U.S. is perhaps the only nation on earth that allows judges to sentence teens to life sentences at all. That’s even worse than China, a nation not too well known for its progressive and fair human rights policies.

It makes us wonder why there truly are 77 teens presently in Florida prisons serving life sentences without parole. That is preposterous.

While the Supreme Court’s decision this week is progress on this tough issue, there is still room for vast improvement.