Justice for Juveniles

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.

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Maxim Faust
8 years 6 months ago
For every younster who appears before the courts to face charges, major or minor, there is a profoundly personal biography of his or her learning. Who and what has formed the meanings and values constituting the child's spirit, those very same meanings and values that have more or less governed childlike decisions and actions, some with horrible consequences? To the degree that such individual biographies can be retraced and understood, then there surfaces the possibility of a new intervention, a new pedagogy that would salvage true meanings and authentic values and reverse what is false and expose the corruption of authentic human values. 
When I was a young man I met someone my own age who quite unwittingly revealed to me that he was being "home schooled" in his father's criminal life! Today, bad fathers are now outnumbered by gang leaders.  They preach the witchery of paltry things and hold death over the heads of those who would disagree.  The new team of pedagogues to intervene in the corruption of the young I will name pneumotherapists.  The primary principle of their work would be that the human spirit, no matter how darkened, loves what is true and really good.
8 years 6 months ago
Unfortunately, the issue of juvenile justrice is quite complex, especially in (overburdened) juvenile couirts.
We need far better specialization in dealing with juvenile gangs and violence.
Then there is the whole problem that youngsters won't "rat out" the worst kind of peer behavior,
A Better education by all, parents and peers too, would surely help in overcoming some of the reactive draconian juvenile crime laws.
Dennis McHugh
8 years 6 months ago
If you consider writing further on this set of subjects, I suggest you bolster the content with some information about the inadequacies of the juvenile justice systems in America.  Here in Maryland, we have an incompetent Department of Juvenile Justice "functioning" in an outmoded statutory framework.  It provides some services at the lower end of the seriousness scale.  For youth who approach age 18 with past offenses, the placements and programs diminish to virtual zero. Governors and legislators do some "blah-blah" about this around election time, but then do nothing of lasting value.  Is that because many to most of the youth come from poor families whose needs can more easily be neglected by those we (!!) elect?  Also, understand that some youth may have vaulted themselves into adulthood and are not amenable to measures, programs and placements designed for juveniles.  I am a retired juvenile court judge who frequently hears cases when recalled to court.
rita pearson
8 years 6 months ago
I am the CEO of the Throw away Kids Network organization in Florida. I take in postitive mentors to kids in juvenile jails . I take in Christian ex-gang members, Bikers, Christian Rappers and others to offer a different way of life to these kids. We are 501c3 and I am on the internet. Please take a look at our site and semd an e mail is there are concerns.
Rita Pearson
Craig McKee
8 years 6 months ago
Don't expect the situation to improve anytime soon during this mid-term ELECTION year. While statistics have shown that "It's cheaper to send them to YALE than to JAIL," vote-garnering politicians continue to "crack down" on the easiest of all legal prey: teenagers.Continued blessings on those who -as one of my own condescending high school administrators used to put it - "work well with THAT population!" At the time, she was referring to ME!!!
Michael Barberi
8 years 6 months ago
Great article
JoMarie Thomson
8 years 6 months ago
My son was 16 when he committed murder.  He was sentenced to 99 years with the possibility of parole after 33 years.  To be eligible for parole he was told he'd need to finish school and get mental health treatment/counselling.  He has finished his GED but has no access to counselling services.  In other words - he'll never be eligible for parole.  For the first two years of his incarceration he was in protective segregation because of his age.  Protective or not - segregation is solitary confinement for 23 hours/day.  This was before his conviction and sentencing.  Imagine what that would do to a 35 year old and then imagine being 16.  No one is arguing that he should be free but few people understand what the state is doing in our name.   Most people think that the prison system should punish the guilty, protect society and rehabilitate the offender but it really only offers punitive part well.
P Phaedrus
8 years 6 months ago
What would some people feel we should do with violent juvenile offenders?  Set them free to kill or maim again?  At least in prison they have the opportunity to live.  Two Police Officers were killed in West Memphis by a 16 year old with an assault rifle.  At least we as a society will not have to deal with him, as he died shooting it out with Police in a parking lot.  I guess running dope was a family business and they got caught.  I may burn in hell, but the Old testament was right about somethings.  "An eye for an eye"  For those that wish to see what some of our youth do today, feel free to see the video.  It's not graphic, only dashcam footage and security footage from the parking lot...
C Walter Mattingly
8 years 6 months ago
Whether or not we free or imprison violent juveniles, we are treating an effect, not a cause. As we continue to exile religion from our public schools, we exile with it a moral perspective on life. We could follow the example of Norway, for example, with its inclusion of religious education through age 13 in its public school system, as of course we could provide vouchers to give concerned parents of limited means the opportunity that most of the readers here take for granted, to chose for their children a school that will provide the intellectual, moral, and spiritual nurture they desire. Meanwhile we choose between bad alternatives of imprisoning juveniles or the difficult task of rehablititation with the accompanying risk of further violence to others.


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