Rights of Juveniles
Before 1967, minors were not given most of the constitutional rights they have currently. At the age of sixteen, Terrance Jamar Graham was involved in an armed burglary. Another man, Joe Harris Sullivan was convicted of sexual assault at the tender age of thirteen. Both Joe Harris Sullivan and Terrance Jamar Graham are, at present, serving life sentences. There are no chances that the duo may be released on parole in the State of Florida. Both prisoners, Terrance Jamar Graham and Sullivan are of the opinion that condemning a minor to life imprisonment with little room for parole is illegal because it violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of America. The Eighth Amendment banishes all forms of barbaric and extreme sentences (Graham v. Florida, 2010).
The state of Florida, however, maintains that the Constitution does not bar the jury from preferring hush penalties, such as life imprisonment with limited chances of parole to any person found to have committed crimes of serious nature. They maintain that it is the work of the US Supreme court to determine whether it is proper to sentence minors to long prison sentences without the likelihood of liberation. The aim of the case of Graham verses Florida was to determine whether it is legal to punish a juvenile who has committed a non-homicide crime with a life imprisonment with minute chances of conditional release. The petitioner, Terrance Jamar Graham, is a 22 year-old male who is currently serving a life sentence without the prospect of being released on any condition in Florida correctional facility.
In the year 2003, Terrance Jamar Graham, at the age of sixteen, was part of a gang that burglarized a restaurant. A few months later, Graham pleaded guilty to a serious felony of attempted armed robbery, burglary, and assault. The adjudication of guilt was, however, withheld in accordance with the plea agreement, and he was then put under three year-old probation. Of the three years, Graham spent one year in a pre-trial detention facility. He left this pre-trial detention facility in 2004. Only six months after leaving the pre-trial facility, it is alleged that Terrance Jamar Graham participated in a fortified home robbery and was accused of holding a gun to the head of one of the victims. Later the same day, a law enforcement officer tried to stop Graham on suspicion of violating traffic rules. He, however, did not pull over, choosing instead to flee from the scene. This resulted in a lengthy car chase between the police and Graham (Graham v. Florida, 2010).
The state of Florida indicted Graham for going against the terms of the probation, under which he had been released from the pre-trial detention facility. As a result, in 2006, the jury delivered its verdict in which Graham was condemned to life imprisonment with little chances of being paroled. This decision was majorly based on Graham’s initial burglary charges. As if that was not enough, Graham was again sentenced to fifteen years for the second attempted armed robbery. He was required to serve both sentences concurrently. The same year, Graham appealed this life sentence without the possibility of parole to the Florida First District of Appeal, also known as District Court of Appeal. In his opinion, the state of Florida had violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. He insisted that the sentence was harsh and could not equate to the crime committed and, therefore, it went against the international best practices.
In another case, Sullivan verses Florida, the petitioner is Joe Harris Sullivan, a man serving a life sentence with no chances of being released in Florida correctional facility. When he was thirteen, Sullivan together with his two other accomplices broke into the empty house of an elderly woman and attempted to steal her jewelry. The following day, Sullivan in the company of one of his sidekicks apparently returned to the house of the old woman. Sullivan is reported to have forcibly taken the elderly woman to her bedroom and beat her before eventually sexually assaulting her. Sullivan was tried before the court of law as an adult with several counts, including sexual assault, burglary of a home, and theft.
Despite being very young at the time, Sullivan already had a long history of criminal activity including several felonies. The judge considered this long history of criminal activity and decided that Sullivan’s case would be handled as though he were an adult. For the sexual assault, Sullivan was sentenced to a life imprisonment with no likelihood of parole, and on the account of grand theft; Sullivan was sentenced to thirty-two years imprisonment. He was required, just like Graham, to serve both sentences concurrently (Elrod & Ryder, 2009).
In both cases, the US Supreme Court will have to make a decision about whether or not minors who indulge in non-homicide crimes must be sentenced to a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The decision of the US Supreme Court will affect all facets of the justice system including the offenders, the judges, the prosecutors, and detectives. Both petitioners, Joe Harris Sullivan and Graham maintain that juveniles have particular social and psychological characteristics that are different from those of adults. The legal system uses punishment as a form of deterring, preventing, incapacitating, and rehabilitating crime. Condemning a minor to life imprisonment with no room for parole is tantamount to capital punishment and negates the sole purpose of correctional facilities, which is to reform offenders.
Juveniles, they argue, are too young to make any informed decisions. As a result, they are influenced by many external forces and cannot be held accountable for their actions. According to Carmen and Trulson (2005), a juvenile is a person who has no formed identity and is still in the process of finding his/her place in society. They state that juveniles do not have a strong capacity for decision making and are prone to lots of negative peer pressure. All these factors only serve to make juveniles less culpable people. Those who support the two petitioners argue that imposing heavy punishments and long jail terms sentences for less serious crimes negates the goal of retribution, which is jealously guarded in the law.
Again, they argue that juveniles are unpredictable and impulsive by nature and are, therefore, not expected to introspectively think and brood over their actions. This means that heavy sentences may not be deterring to a minor. Other juveniles out there will still end up committing crime anyway because they do not stop and consider how their actions may affect those around them. According to both Graham and Sullivan, the juvenile stage of life is one that is transitory and as such, juveniles are more receptive to rehabilitation. Sentencing a juvenile to a life imprisonment without the possibility of parole repudiates him or her chance of rehabilitating and changing for the better. This is because they have no hope for a better tomorrow.
The state of Florida, however, insists that the US Supreme Court should not entirely do away with life sentencing of juveniles without the possibility of parole. The National District Attorneys Association points out that the US Supreme court has never spared any particular group of people from any form of punishment other than that of death. Supported by Amici, the state of Florida insists that a life sentence without the possibility of parole should not be abolished for juveniles because there has been a rise in the level of juvenile crime in the state of Florida. They also argue that the legislature has also set aside a juvenile justice system that is approved by all stakeholders. This juvenile justice system, they say, was specially designed by specialists to cater for the needs of juvenile offenders.
The State of Florida, supported by Amici contends that some of these juveniles have been known to commit crimes that warrant a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Amici also maintains that the crimes committed by both petitioners, Sullivan and Graham, were enough to warrant the harsh statement they got. These sentences, they say, will help protect many innocent children and the entire community from these criminals and will give closure to the victims of their crimes. Supporters of the two, however, disagree with this view stating that a life sentence without the possibility of parole was too harsh considering that they did not commit a homicide.
Both Graham and Sullivan argue in their cases that only a few states in the United States still allow the judicial system to sentence juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Again, even internationally only thirteen of the many countries in the world allow juveniles to be sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of parole with a strong emphasis being observed only in the United State of America. This sentence, they argue, goes against international practices of human right protection treaties, to which the US is signatory.
In conclusion, in both cases: Graham vs. The State of Florida and Sullivan vs. The State of Florida, the US Supreme Court will have to decide whether it is constitutional for state to give life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to juveniles who have committed non-homicide crimes. The two petitioners, John Harris Sullivan and Terrance Jamar Graham maintain that such a sentence violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. The Eighth Amendment does away with unusual punishments. They say that the sentences meted out to them were disproportionate with the crimes they had committed. The court will clarify whether it is constitutional to give life sentences without the possibility of parole to juveniles who have committed non-homicide crimes.