UNITED STATES: Supreme Court limits use of life without parole sentences for children in conflict with the law

U.S. Supreme Court declares sentences of life without parole unconstitutional for non-homicide juvenile offenders

This week, the United States Supreme Court declared some of the country's harshest sentences for children as unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment. While the decision, Graham v Florida, does not go as far as children's rights advocates had hoped, it does make clear that the notoriously severe prison sentences children face on the federal level and in many of the fifty states have again crossed the boundaries of human decency.

The facts of the case date back to 2004 when Graham, a 17-year-old, was convicted of armed burglary and attempted armed robbery while on probation for similar past offenses. Although no lives were lost at any point during or as a result of Graham's actions, the prosecutor sought and the judge ordered that Graham spend the rest of his life incarcerated, the maximum sentence authorized under Florida law. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, this sentence offered Graham no hope for release and the prospect of spending sixty, seventy, eighty or even more years in prison.

While many prisoners in the United States will continue to face the possibility of a lifetime behind bars for offenses they committed as children, on Monday this prospect was deemed too dim to justify Graham's sentence or that of any other non-homicide juvenile offender.

After ending the execution of juvenile offenders in 2005, Court goes one step further

The Graham decision is in many ways a follow-up to the Court's 2005 decision in Roper v Simmons, which put an end to the execution of prisoners who were under the age of 18 at the time they committed an otherwise capital offense.

Much like in Roper, the Supreme Court made much of research presented by Graham's attorneys showing that juveniles are fundamentally different from adults both in terms of their culpability and their capacity for rehabilitation. Because children are different, the reasoning goes, perhaps the criminal justice system should treat them differently.

What the decision does

According to research from the Public Interest Law Center at Florida State University and the Supreme Court's own independent research, there are currently 129 non-homicide offenders who have been sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP). The majority, like Graham, are in Florida, with the rest spread across ten states and the federal system.

In Graham, the Court notes the flaws in Florida's criminal justice system that make injustice all too common. As a particularly outrageous example, the Court discusses the case of Joe Sullivan, now 33 years old, who was tried as an adult and sentenced to JLWOP for a sexual assault committed when he was just 13. Sullivan's appeal was heard by the Court on the same day as Graham's, and - although the Court dismissed that case on other grounds – its verdict on the legality of Sullivan's sentence remains clear.

Now that JLWOP has been found unconstitutional for non-homicide offenders across the United States, Graham, Sullivan, and the 127 other similarly situated juvenile offenders no longer face a guaranteed life behind bars. And in what may lay the groundwork for future sentencing challenges, state and federal judicial and legislative systems have been told once again that they have reached beyond the acceptable limits of "tough on crime" juvenile justice policies.

What the decision does not do

While the Graham decision will no longer allow states to lock the door and throw away the key for non-homicide juvenile offenders, it also does not require states to release these offenders at any time in the near or even distant future.

Indeed, all that is required is that states "give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." The Court expressly clarified that its ruling "does not require the State to release that offender during his natural life." Since it will be up to each system to determine exactly how to review life sentences for juvenile offenders, it is entirely plausible that none of the 129 persons now serving JLWOP for non-homicide offenses will ever be released.

In a perhaps even more glaring omission, the Court's judgment also leaves intact the sentences of almost 2,500 persons in the United States serving JLWOP for homicide-related offenses. Considering that an additional estimated 5,000 persons are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for offenses committed when they were under the age of 18, the Graham decision affects less than two percent of juvenile offenders sentenced to life imprisonment.

How the United States remains one of the worst places in the world for juvenile offenders

In many ways, Graham demonstrates just how out of step juvenile justice in the United States is with the rest of the world. Only 11 countries around the globe authorize JLWOP, and only 2 of these – the United States and Israel – impose the sentence in practice. Because there are just 7 prisoners in Israel serving JLWOP and all were convicted of homicide-related offenses, the United States held 100 percent of non-homicide JLWOP prisoners at the time of the Court's decision and over 99 percent of JLWOP prisoners overall.

Not only do children in conflict with the law in the United States face some of the longest and most severe sentences in the world, they also do not benefit from the established international consensus on children's rights that is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention's provision on juvenile justice would explicitly bar JLWOP sentences, but the United States now stands alone as the only country in the world that has not yet undertaken ratification to formally recognize the human rights of children.

A glimmer of hope for international children's rights

Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child has no formal force in United States law, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of citing its text in Graham. While the Court's mention of the Convention is not controlling, it represents a strong statement from the nation's highest judicial authority about the potential for international children's rights to influence proceedings in courtrooms across the country.

Indeed, while the Court's verdict was reached on an interpretation of national law, the decision emphasizes that national law cannot be scrutinized in a vacuum. Rather, "the overwhelming weight of international opinion against life without parole for non-homicide offenses committed by juveniles provide[s] respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions." In this context, then, the Graham decision reveals a growing level of judicial awareness and openness towards international children's rights.

Baby steps for the Convention on the Rights of the Child

In the lead up to his election in November 2008, President Barack Obama promised to review the Convention on the Rights of the Child as a first step towards towards U.S. ratification. Several months later, the new administration began discussions of "when and how it might be possible to join."

Given the sometimes decades-long road that other international human rights treaties have faced in the arduous U.S. ratification process, however, an enforceable Convention on the Rights of the Child seems for the time being a rather distant prospect. Even with an organized national campaign for ratification and a publicly supportive executive branch, it may still be years before the Convention could take effect.

In the mean time, it appears that international children's rights have got a foot planted squarely in the courtroom door. While the Graham decision is far from the sweeping indictment of the juvenile justice system that advocates might have anticipated, it at the very least shows that the ideas and principles behind the Convention on the Rights of the Child have already begun to gain traction in United States law.

Further Information:

-  Read the full Supreme Court opinion

-  Read the Florida State University Public Interest Law Center's report, Juvenile Life without Parole for Non-Homicide Offenses: Florida Compared to Nation (Sept. 2009)

-  Read Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch's joint report, For the Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States

-  Read the Sentencing Project's report, No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America

-  Read the University of San Francisco School of Law Center for Law and Global Justice's report, Sentencing our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law and Practice

-  Read the text of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

-  Read about the status of the CRC in the United States and the treaty ratification process

-  Visit the homepage of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child


Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.