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Legal News
Life Imprisonment for Youth on High Court's Schedule
Psychiatric News
Volume 44 Number 12 page 4-4

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 from" Graham.

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 Sullivan's case.

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 behavior.

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 actions."

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] ▪

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