Posted on December 9th, 2009 No comments
Last month the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument on two cases addressing whether juveniles may be sentenced to life imprisonment – Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida. Joe Harris Sullivan, now 33, was sentenced to life in prison at age 13 for raping a 72-year-old woman in Pensacola, Florida. Terrance Jamar Graham was 16 when he robbed a restaurant in Jacksonville. Both prisoners had long rap sheets before they received life sentences. The issue before the court in these cases is whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the juvenile’s commission of a non-homicide crime.
Based on the questions and statements by the justices at oral argument, it appears the Court is divided along the typical right / left lines. Those on the left are looking for a bright line test similar to the one established by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons in 2005, whereby juveniles under the age of 18 could not be sentenced to death. Those justices on the right, represented by Justices Alito and Scalia, simply do not believe the Eighth Amendment makes any distinctions regarding age. Justice Roberts proposed requiring trial judges to take age into account before sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole, a compromise stand that appeared aimed at winning over Justice Anthony Kennedy, who usually is the swing vote on this Court.
The arguments that life sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases is based on the premise that the punishment does not fit the crime because juveniles are not as culpable for their actions as adults. This is because of the development of the juvenile brain and life in prison denies any chance at rehabilitation. The opposing side takes the view that punishment is not the only thing to be considered in criminal sentencing. The Court must also consider retribution, or the public’s right to punish the juvenile severely for particularly heinous crimes. By closing the door on life imprisonment, the public is denied the opportunity to impose this severe sanction.
Aside from the punishment vs. retribution argument, there is also the issue of whether the Court should adopt bright line tests. Chief Justice Roberts argues judges should balance the child’s age against the heinousness of the crime. Both the left and the right see the issue as an all or nothing proposition. For the juvenile practitioner, it is easy to jump on to Chief Justice Roberts’ totality of the circumstances approach. We understand that each child’s rate of development is different and we are accustomed to using expert evaluations to determine what level of understanding the child had of his or her crime and what treatment methods would be most effective to rehabilitate the child. However, we must also be aware of the fact that making case-by-case determinations result in wildly different approaches. This undermines the predictability that is critical in our system of justice.
These cases clearly have implications on Michigan Law. Under MCL 712A.18(m), in designated cases, the court “impose any sentence upon the juvenile that could be imposed upon an adult convicted of the offense for which the juvenile was convicted.” This includes life imprisonment. Because these cases would directly impact Michigan Law, I thought it was good subject matter for this web site.
What rule do you think the U.S. Supreme Court should use in these cases – a bright line test one way or another or give judges discretion to sentence to life in prison based on the age of the child and other factors?