Sentenced to life in prison as a child

Posted on 08. Nov, 2009 by in Uncategorized

It’s been a pretty historic weekend. The 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous advance in health care that might mean almost everyone in the United States will have health insurance and ok the Yankees World Series Parade. Tomorrow, another important decision will be made for some 77 inmates who have been sentenced as juveniles to die in prison for committing crimes other than homicide.

Joe Sullivan, who raped a woman when he was 13, and Terrance Graham, who committed armed burglary at 16 will appeal there sentences before the supreme court in Florida citing the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This decision will establish a stricter guideline on how we convict juveniles. In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile offender to death.

Graham and Sullivan are the only inmates in the U.S. sentenced to life in prison at age 13.  Although I believe that in certain case juveniles should be judged as adults, I was surprised to learn how harsh this sentence was especially in Graham’s case. According to court documents:

At age 16, petitioner Terrance Graham committed the only offenses for which he has ever been convicted. He was an accomplice to an armed
burglary and attempted armed robbery of a restaurant. Petitioner pled guilty to these offenses stemming from this single incident, and, as part of a
subsequent probation violation he committed as a juvenile, he was sentenced to the statutory maximum penalty—life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—for the crime he committed as a 16-year-old.”

“Florida stands nearly alone in its punishment of juveniles, such as petitioner, who have not taken or attempted to take a life, as it is one of just six States known to be incarcerating such offenders in perpetuity. And of the just 106 known juvenile non-homicide offenders serving a life-without-parole sentence in the United States, 77 of them are in Florida.
Moreover, only Florida and South Carolina permit a first-time juvenile offender such as petitioner to be sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime of armed burglary, and only Florida does so in practice.”

According to the National Institute of Corrections the annual cost of keeping an inmate in jail is $22,650. It is more expensive to keep inmates like Graham and Sullivan in jail, than to attempt to rehabilitate them and bring them back into society. Both were first-time offenders and their crimes were not appealed in other courts after their sentencing. According to a national institute of health study, the brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25. So how can we judge a thirteen year old to the same standard as an adult? Both their crimes are reprehensible, but considering the costs taxpayers accrue to keep them in jail, the courts should consider rehabilitation as a more viable option for inmates in their position.


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