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Originally published Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 12:18 AM

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Should juveniles get life in prison?

There are more than 100 people in the world serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles in which no one was killed. All are in the United States, and 77 are in Florida.

The New York Times

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — There are more than 100 people in the world serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles in which no one was killed. All are in the United States, and 77 are in Florida.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals Monday from two such juvenile offenders: Joe Sullivan, who raped a woman when he was 13, and Terrance Graham, who committed armed burglary at 16. They claim that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids sentencing them to die in prison for crimes other than homicide.

Outside the context of the death penalty, the Supreme Court has generally allowed states to decide for themselves what punishments fit what crimes. But the court barred the execution of juvenile offenders in 2005 by a vote of 5-4, saying people younger than 18 are immature, irresponsible, susceptible to peer pressure and often capable of change.

A ruling extending that reasoning beyond capital cases "could be the Brown v. Board of Education of juvenile law," said Paolo Annino, director of the Children's Advocacy Clinic at Florida State University's law school. Judges, legislators and prosecutors in Florida agree that the state takes an exceptionally tough line on juvenile crime.

Deep divisions

But they are deeply divided about when sentences of life without the possibility of release are warranted.

"Sometimes a 15-year-old has a tremendous appreciation for right and wrong," said state Rep. William Snyder, a Republican who is chairman of the House's Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council. "I think it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to say that it was patently illegal or improper to send a youthful offender to life without parole. At a certain point, juveniles cross the line, and they have to be treated as adults and punished as adults."

A retired Florida appeals- court judge, John Blue, did not see it that way.

"To lock them up forever seems a little barbaric to me," Blue said. "It just seems to me that if you are going to put someone who is 13 or 14 or 15 or 16 or 17 into prison, you ought to leave them some hope."

Several factors in combination — some legal, some historical, some cultural — help account for the disproportionate number of juvenile lifers in Florida.

The state's attorney general, Bill McCollum, explained the roots of the state's approach in the first paragraph of his brief in Graham's case.

"By the 1990s, violent-juvenile-crime rates had reached unprecedented high levels throughout the nation," McCollum wrote. "Florida's problem was particularly dire, compromising the safety of residents, visitors and international tourists, and threatening the state's bedrock tourism industry." Nine foreign tourists were killed over 11 months in 1992 and 1993, one of them by a 14-year-old.

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Snyder, the state legislator, put it this way: "Instead of the Sunshine State, it was the Gun-shine State."

In response, the state moved more juveniles into adult courts, increased sentences and eliminated parole for capital crimes.

Thomas Petersen, a semiretired judge in Miami who spent a decade hearing cases in juvenile court, said the state's reaction was out of proportion to the problem and that it had lately failed to take account of changed circumstances.

"Back in the 1990s, there were dire predictions about teenage superpredators, particularly in Florida," Petersen said. "Florida, probably more than other places because of that rash of crimes, overreacted. It was a hysterical reaction.

"People still go around saying things have never been worse. But violent juvenile crime has gone down even as the juvenile population has grown."

The state's brief in Graham's case said juvenile crime fell 30 percent in the decade ended in 2004. It attributed the drop to its tough approach to the problem.

Wrong turn by state

Shay Bilchik, who served as a state prosecutor in Miami from 1977 to 1993 and is the director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, said the state took a wrong turn.

"We were pretty aggressive in those years in transferring kids into criminal court," Bilchik said. He said later research convinced him his office's approach was much too aggressive and had not served to deter crime.

"My biggest regret is that during the time I was in the prosecutor's office, we were under the false impression that we were insuring greater public safety when we were not," Bilchik said.

Sullivan, now 34, had committed a string of crimes by the time he was charged with raping a 72-year-old woman after a burglary in 1989 in Pensacola.

Graham, now 22, was sentenced to a year in jail and three years of probation for a 2003 robbery of a restaurant in Jacksonville, during which an accomplice beat the manager with a steel bar. He was sentenced to life in 2005 for violating his probation by committing a home-invasion robbery with two others when he was 17.

Concern about tourism continues to drive crime policy in the state, said Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida.

"We're at the more extreme level because our economy is so tied up with people coming here on vacation and feeling safe. And older people want to live out their retirements here and be safe."

There are, according to a brief filed in the cases by human-rights groups and foreign bar associations, more than 2,500 juvenile offenders in the United States serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole, mostly for murder. This country is alone, the brief said, in imposing the punishment for juvenile offenses.

The maximum sentence in Germany, for instance, for any crime committed by a juvenile is 10 years. In Italy, it is 24 years.

Florida, 7 other states

Florida is one of eight states with juvenile offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes, according to a report prepared by Annino and two colleagues at Florida State. Louisiana has 17 such prisoners; California, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina have the rest.

The number of such sentences in Florida was greater in the decade that ended in 2008 than in the decade before. The state sentenced nine juvenile offenders for nonhomicide crimes to life without parole in 2005 alone.

"We're just so far out from everyone else," Annino said. "These are 77 children who didn't kill anyone. We're unique, and we're out of step with the rest of the country."

Snyder, the state legislator, said finding the right balance in addressing juvenile crime was difficult but should be left to the states.

"People do things at 16 and 17 that they wouldn't do at 37, but they spend a lifetime paying for it," he said. "But we have to create an environment where our children are safe and our elderly are safe."

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