by Sarah Hammond
In 2005 the United Stated Supreme Court ruled to abolish the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons. The high court cited recent studies on adolescent brain development showing the difference between the brain of an adult and the brain of a child, ultimately ruling that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute juveniles under the age of 18 for their crimes because they lacked the requisite culpability.
Juvenile sentencing laws are once again being examined by the high court. There are currently two cases before the Court, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. In both cases, the juveniles were convicted of serious crimes, but non-homicides, at a young age and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Now, both of their lawyers argue that the sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles, stating that the sentence does not take into consideration a juvenile’s capacity for rehabilitation and citing the brain research used in Roper v. Simmons.
Policy on juvenile delinquency continues to struggle with the appropriate balance of concern over the healthy development of children and adolescents who violate the law, and a public desire to punish criminals. Over the years, the pendulum has swung dramatically back and forth, and the tension between them remains strong today.
Forty-two states and the federal government have some version of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. There are approximately 2,500 individuals in the United States currently serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.
Despite the Supreme Court case, several states have already examined the issue of life without parole for juvenile offenders.
If the high court overturns the rulings in Sullivan v. Florida or Graham v. Florida, each state will have to look at its own law in order to be in compliance.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in these two cases in November 2009. States are now waiting for the 2010 ruling.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has tracked juvenile life without parole legislation in states. For a complete list, log onto NCSL's criminal justice page.