Sunday, November 8, 2009
November 8, 2009
Weighing Life in Prison for Youths Who Didn’t Kill
By ADAM LIPTAK
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — There are just over 100 people in the world serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles in which no one was killed. All are in the United States. And 77 of them are here in Florida.
On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear appeals from two such juvenile offenders: Joe Sullivan, who raped a woman when he was 13, and Terrance Graham, who committed armed burglary at 16. They claim that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids sentencing them to die in prison for crimes other than homicide.
Outside the context of the death penalty, the Supreme Court has generally allowed states to decide for themselves what punishments fit what crimes. But the court barred the execution of juvenile offenders in 2005 by a vote of 5 to 4, saying that people under 18 are immature, irresponsible, susceptible to peer pressure and often capable of change.
A ruling extending that reasoning beyond capital cases “could be the Brown v. Board of Education of juvenile law,” said Paolo G. Annino, the director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Florida State University’s law school. Judges, legislators and prosecutors in Florida agree that the state takes an exceptionally tough line on juvenile crime.
But they are deeply divided about when sentences of life without the possibility of release are warranted.
“Sometimes a 15-year-old has a tremendous appreciation for right and wrong,” said State Representative William D. Snyder, a Republican who is chairman of the House’s Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council. “I think it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to say that it was patently illegal or improper to send a youthful offender to life without parole. At a certain point, juveniles cross the line, and they have to be treated as adults and punished as adults.”
A retired Florida appeals court judge, John R. Blue, did not see it that way. “To lock them up forever seems a little barbaric to me,” Judge Blue said. “You ought to leave them some hope.”
Several factors in combination — some legal, some historical, some cultural — help account for the disproportionate number of juvenile lifers in Florida.
The state’s attorney general, Bill McCollum, explained the roots of the state’s approach in the first paragraph of his brief in Mr. Graham’s case.
“By the 1990s, violent juvenile crime rates had reached unprecedented high levels throughout the nation,” Mr. McCollum wrote. “Florida’s problem was particularly dire, compromising the safety of residents, visitors and international tourists, and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry.” Nine foreign tourists were killed over 11 months in 1992 and 1993, one by a 14-year-old.
Mr. Snyder, the state legislator, put it this way: “Instead of the Sunshine State, it was the Gun-shine State.”
In response, the state moved more juveniles into adult courts, increased sentences and eliminated parole for capital crimes.
Thomas K. Petersen, a semi-retired judge in Miami who spent a decade hearing cases in juvenile court, said that the state’s reaction was out of proportion and that it has lately failed to take account of changed circumstances.
“Back in the 1990s, there were dire predictions about teenage super-predators, particularly in Florida,” Judge Petersen said. “Florida, probably more than other places because of that rash of crimes, overreacted. It was a hysterical reaction.”
“People still go around saying things have never been worse,” he added. “But violent juvenile crime has gone down even as the juvenile population has grown.”
The state’s brief in Mr. Graham’s case said juvenile crime fell 30 percent in the decade ended in 2004. It attributed the drop to its tough approach.
Shay Bilchik, who served as a state prosecutor in Miami from 1977 to 1993 and is now the director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown, said the state took a wrong turn. “We were pretty aggressive in those years in transferring kids into criminal court,” he said.
He said later research convinced him that his office’s approach was much too aggressive and had not served to deter crime. “My biggest regret,” he said, “is that during the time I was in the prosecutor’s office, we were under the false impression that we were insuring greater public safety when we were not.”
Mr. Sullivan, 34, had committed a string of crimes by the time he was charged with raping a 72-year-old woman after a burglary in 1989 in Pensacola. Mr. Graham, 22, was sentenced to a year in jail and three years’ probation for a 2003 robbery of a Jacksonville restaurant, during which an accomplice beat the manager with a steel bar. Mr. Graham was sentenced to life in 2005 for violating probation by committing a home invasion robbery when he was 17.
Concern about tourism continues to drive crime policy in the state, said Kathleen M. Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. “We’re at the more extreme level,” she said, “because our economy is so tied up with people coming here on vacation and feeling safe. And older people want to live out their retirements here and be safe.”
Florida is one of eight states with juvenile offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes, according to a report prepared by Professor Annino and two colleagues at Florida State. Louisiana has 17 such prisoners; California, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina have the rest.
The number of such sentences in Florida was greater in the decade that ended in 2008 than in the decade before. The state sentenced nine juvenile offenders for nonhomicide crimes to life without parole in 2005 alone. “We’re just so far out from everyone else,” Professor Annino said.
Mr. Snyder said finding the right balance in addressing juvenile crime was difficult but should be left to the states. “People do things at 16 and 17 that they wouldn’t do at 37, but they spend a lifetime paying for it,” he said. “But we have to create an environment where our children are safe and our elderly are safe.”
Posted by Independent Intellect at 13:39