Crime and Punishment for Minors

On Monday November 9th, the Supreme Court received a petition against the controversial practice of sentencing minors who have committed non-homicidal crimes to life in prison. The petitioners referred to two cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, in which both defendants were sentenced to life in prison as minors. The petitioners stated that the outcome of these cases conflicted with the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the 8th Amendment.

The United States is currently the only country in the world that still allows minors to be sentenced to life in prison. Until recently, it still allowed minors to be sentenced to death. Whatever the arguments against its use, the life sentence should still apply to minors, even those who commit non-homicidal crimes. A general rule that exempts them from it would be too lenient. Severe juvenile crimes should be judged on a case-by-case basis so that all factors may be evenly weighed in the decision to send a minor to prison for life.

A crime is a crime no matter the outcome; justice must be served in order to protect American citizens’ right to security and safety. The petitioners argue that the eighth amendment protects juvenile citizens from cruel and unusual punishment. Yet for adults who commit heinous crimes, life sentences are still feasible. It is ageist to suppose that a 17-year-old who commits a heinous crime cannot have the same determination and intent as a legal adult. If it is cruel and unusual punishment for a mentally matured and responsible minor to receive life in prison, then it is cruel for an adult as well.

In the case Sullivan v. Florida, 13-year-old Joe Sullivan was accused of brutally raping an elderly woman after a robbery. These crimes, in conjunction with the 17 other offenses that Sullivan committed previously, led the judge to sentence Sullivan to life in prison. Though there is some question as to whether Sullivan had a fair trial, the issue at hand is whether or not a life sentence is acceptable for a minor. Sullivan’s lawyer’s defense is that the young boy was mentally challenged. Others, including the New York Times’ Marc Mauer, have argued that Sullivan, who is now 33, no longer presents a threat to public safety. He suffers from multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair.

In his specific case, life in prison should not have applied. It seems that Sullivan needed institutional help, not confinement and condemnation to death in prison.

The other case is different. Terrance Graham participated in a home invasion robbery and held a man at gunpoint while on parole after his release from a yearlong sentence in jail. The judge who determined Graham’s case decided that after multiple crimes with seemingly no regard for the law or safety of others, Graham should be spending his life in prison. It is one thing to accept responsibility for what one has done, but it is entirely another to totally disregard the law and pour salt on an open wound. Graham was given a second chance; he even got off on parole. Yet he chose to continue to defy the law after what was to him, useless time in jail. Minors like Graham are already hardened criminals and they should be treated as such.

The point is that a blanket ban of the life sentence for minors isn’t practical. Instead, juvenile life sentences should remain legal, but its use should be fully considered. There are myriad factors that need to be taken into consideration: intent, peer pressure (such as in gang-violence) and even underdeveloped frontal lobes (some juveniles are not biologically mature). Judges should not apply a life sentence if it is unreasonable.

Sullivan and Graham both obviously could not be rehabilitated by the justice system. Both judges felt Sullivan and Graham had not and, more importantly, could not learn their lessons. Sullivan’s was a special case and an exception to life in prison. The facts of his case point to mental and physical disabilities. While Sullivan did pose a threat to public safety, another remedy seems to have been required. As for Graham, his extreme disregard and disrespect for the law landed him an extremely unfortunate, but essentially fair verdict.

Cases dealing with life in prison for minors should be decided on a case-by-case basis. A heinous crime committed by a minor is not undone; it is still a crime. There is no magical line of maturity that one crosses on an 18th birthday. It is ultimately up to the judge who is most familiar with the specific case to decide what defines a child and whether the punishment fits the crime.

Alexander Helmintoller is a first-year English major. He can be reached at ahelmint@uci.edu.