Life sentences for kids
The U.S. Supreme Court will once again take on the issue of excessive punishment for juvenile offenders. In 2005 they ruled that the death penalty for those under 18 was unconstitutional. This was the case of Roper v. Simmons where the court ruled that both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments “forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.”
In the case before the court two juveniles - Joe Sullivan, who raped a 72-year-old woman when he was 13, and Terrance Graham, who committed armed burglary when he was 16 – were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. What is also significant about these cases is that they came from the state of Florida. Two reports in the New York Times document something worth taking notice of: out of 109 juveniles serving a sentence of life without parole, 77 (71%) are in the state of Florida, while 17 are in Louisiana. Two are in Mississippi and one is in South Carolina. Thus 89% are in the South. A graphic found in one article shows that in Florida 84% of the juveniles serving this kind of sentence are black. This is not at all surprising, since the incarceration rate for black youths has consistently been much greater than for whites. Also, incarceration rates in general have always been the highest in the South. A Human Rights Watch report found that black kids are about 10 times as likely to be sentenced to life without parole as whites. (Incidentally this report cites such previous studies as a report by Mike Males and Dan Macallair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice called The Color of Justice in addition to a study by Building Blocks for Youth called And Justice for Some.)
The racism is further illustrated in the case of Joe Sullivan (one of the principals in the case before the Supreme Court referred to above). According to the EJI report during his trial "the prosecutor and witnesses made repeated, unnecessary reference to the fact that Joe is African American and the victim (was) white. One witness repeatedly said the perpetrator of the assault was a 'colored boy' or 'a dark colored boy'" (quoted in Segura’s report). (For further background see one of several EJI reports.)
The aforementioned Human Rights Watch report found that there were a total of 2,225 serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles (mostly for homicide). A more recent report says the number is now 2,574, a report that is a two-part series published in AlterNet by Liliana Segura.
Segura’s report is revealing in that it documents not only some truly unjust sentences, but also further documents the racism of such sentences. An example of the former is the case of a 16-year-old girl who killed her pimp after years of brutal treatment. Segura states that the girl “worked for GG as a prostitute for three years. The hours were 6 p.m. until 5:30 or 6 in the morning. She and ‘the other girls’ would come back and hand over their earnings to him. ‘He was, like, married to all of us I guess,’ she says. ‘ … Everything was his’." She “was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder. Despite attempts by her lawyer to have her sentenced as a juvenile, the judge described her crime as ‘well thought-out’ and sentenced her to life without parole.” The judge said that she “lacked moral scruples." She is now 32 years old and has attorneys working pro bono on an appeal of her sentence.
Segura refers to a report by Bryan Stevenson, the lead attorney in the case and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama (EJI). Their report found that of those kids sentenced to life without parole at least 74 were 14 or younger when they committed their crimes.
Why does Florida have the greatest proportion of such cases? Part of the answer comes from the words of ultra-conservative attorney general Bill McCollum who noted: “By the 1990s, violent juvenile crime rates had reached unprecedented high levels throughout the nation. Florida’s problem was particularly dire, compromising the safety of residents, visitors and international tourists, and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry.” A total of nine foreign tourists were killed during an 11-month period in 1992 and 1993, one by a 14-year-old. Republican state legislator William Snyder added: “Instead of the Sunshine State, it was the Gun-shine State.”
However, some prosecutors and judges said Florida overreacted. Judge Thomas K. Petersen said that: “Florida, probably more than other places because of that rash of crimes, overreacted. It was a hysterical reaction.” Former prosecutor Shay Bilchik observed that “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.”
Judging from some of the comments of the justices noted in the most recent New York Times report it is hard to predict the outcome, as their opinions vary. It just might come down to the opinion of the newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor.
© 2009 by Randall G. Shelden.