Advocates for children were understandably heartened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on May 17 that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a nonhomicide offense violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case concerns Terrance Graham, a learning-disabled child who was 16 at the time of his original offense in 2003, helping to rob a restaurant in Florida. He received a year in jail and three years of probation. A year later, with two accomplices, he took part in a home-invasion burglary. In 2005 a Florida judge sentenced him to life without parole for violating probation.
The Supreme Court’s decision reflects its earlier ruling in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment. That finding, as well as the current one, was based partly on the belief that children under 18 are less mature in their thinking and decision-making abilities than adults. They lack what the Roper ruling calls the “well-formed identities of adults” and are hence prone to “immature and irresponsible behavior.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority in both cases.
As Ashley Nellis, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., has put it, “We can apply appropriate punishment as well as protect public safety without locking up these children and simply throwing away the key.” As for children who commit murder, approximately 2,000 throughout the country are serving life-without-parole sentences. That may be the next frontier in the move toward a more compassionate and rehabilitative approach to juveniles who commit heinous crimes. Presently, there is no prospect that they will return to the community.
The United States has a poor record on punishment of child offenders and is the only country in the world besides Somalia that continues to refuse to sign the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The covenant specifically forbids “life imprisonment without possibility of release” for people under 18 years of age. Under the convention, sentencing children to life, even for serious crimes, is considered inhumane and inconsistent with a civilized society. Adding to the severity of life-without-parole sentences is the fact that children serving such adult sentences are often ineligible to take part in educational and vocational programs. Ordinarily these are reserved for prisoners who may one day be released. The possibility of rehabilitation is thus abandoned, along with any hope for a future life outside prison.
Another problem in the field of juvenile justice is the trend toward trying more and more children in adult courts, which began in the 1990s amid fears of an impending adolescent crime wave by “super-predators” that never materialized. The trend is intertwined with mandatory laws that require the transfer of juveniles to adult courts for certain serious crimes. Upon conviction, many are sent to adult prisons, as many as 2,500 annually. There they face increased risk of sexual abuse by adult prisoners and staff and higher rates of suicide. They also become more likely to commit crimes when they are eventually released. The racial implications are strong. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be sent to adult courts than white children who are found guilty of comparable offenses. (Terrance Graham is black.)
As matters stand now, some 80 children 13 years of age and younger are transferred yearly to adult courts, almost as many for property crimes as for crimes against persons. These are frequently relatively minor offenses. According to the study From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System, the decisions as to when and whether a young child will be treated as an adult “are marked by extreme arbitrariness...and unpredictability.” The study’s recommendations include providing parole opportunities for children transferred to adult courts regardless of sentence length. In Florida and Pennsylvania, the report notes, “children as young as seven could receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole.”
The case of Terrance Graham should provoke further examination of how the courts can better deal with juveniles in a manner that is both just and compassionate toward children. The Supreme Court’s decision does not mean that after a set period of time Graham will be freed, but rather that he may eventually be allowed to appear before a parole board to determine the extent of his rehabilitation. He and others in his situation deserve that right as the Supreme Court continues to reflect on “evolving standards of decency.” Justice Kennedy used this phrase in handing down the majority’s decision in the Roper case that ended the execution of juveniles in 2005. The Supreme Court ought to make sure those same standards of decency for juveniles continue to evolve.