Supreme Court Will Answer: Should We Imprison Kids For Life?

By Guest Columnist Nov 12, 2009

By Ashley Nellis There are more than 1,700 people in the United States serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. No other nation has even a single person serving such a sentence. On November 9, the U.S. Supreme Court considered an extreme outcome of this policy, two cases of juveniles serving no-parole life terms for non-homicide offenses. There is no question that the two juveniles, Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham, were convicted of very serious offenses. So why is it problematic to incarcerate them for life? First, children are different than adults. As the Supreme Court noted in its 2005 decision banning the death penalty for juveniles, children do not have fully matured levels of judgment or impulse control, and are more susceptible to peer pressure than adults. Brain imaging research documents that adolescent brains are not fully developed, particularly in areas that control reasoning and risk taking. It is for these reasons that all states already impose age restrictions on voting, driving, and consuming alcohol. Children are also uniquely capable of change. No matter how serious a crime committed by a 13-year-old, there is no means of predicting what type of adult he or she will become in 10 or 20 years. That’s why we need professional parole boards to consider whether and at what point they are capable of returning to society. Many of the juveniles serving life without parole sentences are doing so as a result of the harsh penalties adopted by many states in the 1990s that automatically transfer certain juvenile cases to adult court. Upon conviction in adult court, they are often sentenced to mandatory life terms. Thus, at no point is there an opportunity to permit consideration of the individual circumstances of the child and the potential for rehabilitation. The impact of these policies can be seen in the Sullivan and Graham cases, both sentenced in Florida courts. Of the 109 juveniles nationally who have been identified as serving life without parole terms for a non-homicide, 77 are in Florida alone. It is difficult to imagine that young people in Florida are so much more violent or beyond redemption than children in any other state, but not difficult to determine that sentencing policies in that state have produced these results. Ashley Nellis is a research analyst with the Sentencing Project.