WASHINGTON – Confronted with the stark reality of a 13-year-old boy sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, the Supreme Court justices signaled Monday that they were inclined to limit, or perhaps abolish, the use of life terms for teenagers whose crimes do not involve murder.
The court often has invoked the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” to restrict the death penalty. On Monday, the justices also sounded ready to rule that some states, in particular Florida, had gone too far by sentencing children to life in prison without a chance for a parole.
“To say to any child of 13 that you are only fit to die in prison is cruel,” attorney Bryan Stevenson told the court. “It cannot be reconciled with what we know about the nature of children. It cannot be reconciled with our standards of decency.”
Stevenson is representing Joe Sullivan, who at age 13 was convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman and given a life prison term. Stevenson said rapists in Florida are sentenced, on average, to 10 years in prison. Yet, Sullivan, who already has served 20 years, will die in prison unless the Supreme Court intervenes.
A second case heard Monday involved Terrance Graham, who at 17 was given a life term for his part in an armed robbery of a restaurant and a later home invasion robbery.
Sullivan and Graham are among 109 inmates nationwide who were sentenced to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.
During oral arguments, most of the justices sounded as though they were inclined to overturn at least some of these sentences as too extreme. However, they differed on how to do it. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. offered a middle-ground approach that could overturn prison terms in some cases if the state judges failed to weigh the youthful age of the offender. Roberts said this “case-by-case approach” was wiser than setting a single rule.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he agreed.
But most of the liberal justices hinted they would go further and rule it was always cruel and unusual punishment to impose a life term for an offender who is under age 18 and who did not commit a murder.
“Every state recognizes the difference between an adult and a minor. And you have to make a line. We have it at 18,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “The teenager can’t drink, can’t drive, can’t marry. There are many (legal) limitations on children just because they are children.”
Only Justice Antonin Scalia defended Florida’s policy, saying the court should look to history.
“When the ‘cruel and unusual’ clause was adopted (in 1791), 12 years was viewed as the year when a person reaches maturity,” Scalia said. “And then all felonies (were subject to) the death penalty.”