In 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that imposing a death-penalty sentence
on those who committed crimes when they were under 16 years of age violated
the Constitution's prohibitions against "cruel and unusual
punishment." In 2005 it extended that ruling to juveniles under age 18.
The Court has now agreed to decide whether that Eighth Amendment prohibition
also makes it unconstitutional to sentence those under age 18 to life in
prison without the possibility of parole.
In early May the Court agreed to hear arguments in two cases from Florida
that bear on this issue. Neither conviction involved a homicide—one of
the life sentences was imposed for a rape committed by a 13-year-old, and the
other for a home-invasion robbery committed by a 17-year-old who was on
probation after previous convictions.
The case of Graham v. Florida began when Terrance Graham, then
aged 16, pleaded guilty to armed burglary and attempted armed robbery. He was
sentenced to three years' probation. A year later, however, the state said
that he violated his probation by committing an armed home-invasion robbery.
Police said he also admitted involvement in "two or three other
robberies" while on probation. The state revoked his probation and
sentenced him to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for the
original burglary and robbery. A trial court agreed the sentence was
justified, primarily because it "needed to protect the community
Graham's attorneys appealed, arguing that the Eighth Amendment barred such
a severe sentence for a juvenile who was imprisoned for a first offense that
did not involve murder.
In Sullivan v. Florida 13-year-old Joe Sullivan, who is"
mentally disabled," was convicted in 1989 of raping a 72-year-old
woman whose home he and two older teens had robbed earlier the same day, when
the victim was not at home. No biological evidence was presented during
Sullivan's one-day trial, with the prosecution relying on the other two teens'
accounts that Sullivan had returned to the victim's house and committed the
rape and a voice-identification tape of Sullivan in which the victim
identified the voice as that of the rapist.
The sentence made Sullivan one of only two 13-year-olds in the country
sentenced to life without parole for a nonhomicide—the other was also a
Florida case. The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear a review of
Both appeals are based on the question of whether such a sentence for a
nonhomicide is cruel and unusual punishment for a juvenile. Sullivan's
attorneys also introduced due-process and equal-protection arguments under the
14th Amendment. The lawyers are not claiming that their clients are innocent,
but that they deserve to be eligible for parole. Graham is now aged 22;
Sullivan is 33.
In its 2005 Roper v. Simmons ruling on a juvenile death penalty,
the Court's majority cited reasoning in an amicus brief prepared by the
American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, in which APA joined, pointing out
that the brains of adolescents are not the same as those of adults but are
still developing. Thus, adolescents are less able to control impulsive
behaviors and resist negative peer influence that can lead up to criminal
The decision in Roper, written by Justice Anthony
Kennedy—often the Court's swing vote—also cited the development of
an "evolving national consensus" that because of the immaturity of
youth under age 18, courts need to use different standards when determining
the punishment they receive after criminal conviction.
It is unknown at this point, of course, whether justices will cite similar
arguments when the punishment is life without the possibility of parole.
However, child psychiatrist David Fassler, M.D., told Psychiatric
News that "research has continued to evolve since the
Roper case, and I expect issues of adolescent brain development will
again be addressed in the fall when the Court hears oral arguments on the two
cases from Florida.... Our society recognizes that juveniles differ from
adults in their thinking, reasoning, and decision-making capacities. Research
has also demonstrated that adolescents actually use their brains in
fundamentally different ways from adults. As a result, they're more likely to
act on impulse, without fully considering the consequences of their
APA's Committee on Judicial Action is reviewing the scientific literature
on the mental health aspects of the issues involved in the cases and working
with the Council on Psychiatry and Law to advise the APA Board of Trustees on
how to proceed, according to committee chair Jeffrey Janofsky, M.D. One course
of action being considered is to sign on to a brief developed by another
organization. [Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412; Sullivan v.
Florida, No. 08-7621] ▪