Monday, September 28, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court to Consider Juvenile 'Lifers'

by David G. Savage

September 28, 2009

Reporting from Washington - Joe Sullivan was 13 years old when he and two older boys broke into a home, where they robbed and raped an elderly woman. After a one-day trial in 1989, Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.

Terrance Graham was 16 when he and two others robbed a restaurant. When he was arrested again a year later for a home break-in, a Florida judge said he was incorrigible. In 2005, Graham received a life term with no parole.

The two young convicts represent an American phenomenon, one the Supreme Court is set to reconsider in the fall term that opens Oct. 5. At issue is whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to imprison a minor until he or she dies when the crime does not involve murder.

According to Amnesty International, "The United States is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles."

Nearly all of the estimated 2,500 U.S. prisoners serving life terms for juvenile crimes, the group said, were guilty either of murder or of participating in a crime that led to a homicide. But 109 inmates are serving life sentences for other crimes committed when they were younger than 18.

Sullivan's and Graham's lawyers do not claim the young men deserve to go free.

"We are not asking for Mr. Graham to be released any time soon," attorney Bryan Gowdy said. "We are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a sentence of life without parole for these crimes. It would be entirely different if Mr. Graham had a meaningful opportunity for parole."

The question will be an early test of whether Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, will align herself with the court's tough-on-crime conservatives or join with its liberals to strike down prison policies perceived as going too far.

Sullivan’s and Graham’s cases will be heard in November. Many lawyers and prosecutors said that until the Supreme Court agreed this year to take up the issue, they were unaware of juveniles receiving such sentences.

Sullivan, now 33, has been in prison for 20 years. The Florida appeals court and the state Supreme Court refused to review his sentence. When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum said the appeal should be dismissed on the grounds that it was too late to raise the issue of cruel and unusual punishment.

A lawyer for Graham has called his client's life sentence freakish and unfair. A second youth who participated in the restaurant robbery hit an employee with a club. He was later arrested for robbing a gas station and sentenced to three years in prison. He has since been released.

Florida leads the nation in sending teenagers to prison for life with no possible parole for crimes such as burglary, assault or rape. It has at least 77 such inmates. California and six other states also have at least one.

"This is a hidden group. They don't get a lot of attention because there was no homicide," said Paolo Annino, a law professor at Florida State University who has compiled national data on these prisoners.

California officials said they were unaware of having four such inmates until they checked their database at Annino's request. Two years ago, California joined many other states in prohibiting the sentencing of young offenders to life in prison.

But that measure did not affect inmates who had already been sentenced.

Annino and others point to two trends in the 1980s that led to juveniles serving life terms. First was the national move to abolish parole, reflecting fears that violent criminals could not be safely released. Second was the increased prosecution of young criminals as adults.

In defense of its life-in-prison policy, Florida's lawyers have pointed to several deadly attacks on European visitors carried out by young criminals.

These violent incidents were "threatening the state's bedrock tourism industry," Florida's lawyers said in the opening paragraph of their brief to the Supreme Court in the Graham case.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Amicus Briefs in Pending Juvenile Life Without Parole U.S. Supreme Court Cases

The following are merit briefs and all the amicus briefs that were filed in the cases Graham v. Florida, Docket No. 08-7412 and Sullivan v. Florida, Docket No. 08-7621, currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Graham case the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the question, "Whether the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the juvenile's commission of a non-homicide."

In the Sullivan case the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the following two questions, "Joe Sullivan is serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense committed when he was thirteen years old. Nationwide, only one other thirteen-year-old child has received a life-without-parole sentence for a non-homicide. The questions presented are:

1. Does imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a thirteen-year-old for a non-homicide violate the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, where the freakishly rare imposition of such a sentence reflects a national consensus on the reduced criminal culpability of children?

2. Given the extreme rarity of a life imprisonment without parole sentence imposed on a 13-year-old child for a non-homicide and the unavailability of substantive review in any other federal court, should this Court grant review of a recently evolved Eighth Amendment claim where the state court has refused to do so?"

Graham v. Florida, Docket No. 08-7412

Merit briefs
Amicus briefs

Sullivan v. Florida Docket No. 08-7621

Merit briefs

Amicus briefs

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mental Health America Adopts Policy Opposing Life Sentences Without Parole For Juveniles


Mental Health America Adopts Policy Opposing Life Sentences Without Parole For Juveniles

Contact: Steve Vetzner, (703) 797-2588 or

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (September 16, 2009)-Mental Health America has adopted a strong policy opposing sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, calling such punishment "inconsistent with any of the purposes which ordinarily guide sentencing."

The policy was adopted by Mental Health America's Board of Directors at its September meeting. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment this term.

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole. In 42 states and under federal law, children who are too young to legally buy cigarettes are being tried for crimes as adults and if convicted can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

There are currently at least 2,500 youthful offenders serving life without parole in U.S. prisons. Nationally, 59 percent of these individuals received their sentences for their first ever criminal conviction. Sixteen percent were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they committed their crimes, and 26% were sentenced under a felony murder charge where their offense did not involved carrying a weapon or pulling a trigger.

"Sentencing, including sentencing to imprisonment, has long been guided by four considerations: deterrence, retribution, incapacitation and rehabilitation. None of these purposes are served by sentencing juveniles to life without parole," the policy position states.

"Victims of child abuse and neglect are over-represented among incarcerated juveniles, including those serving life without parole. Studies of this population also consistently demonstrate a high incidence of mental health and substance use disorders, serious brain injuries, and learning disabilities. In many instances, these juveniles have not received adequate diagnostic assessments or interventions."

The policy also notes that such sentences violate international law and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world, except Somalia and the United States.

Mental Health America is also encouraging its more than 300 affiliates to work to repeal laws in those states which permit a sentence of life without parole. And it urges mental health advocates, professionals and other service providers work to ensure that juveniles are provided with appropriate services while incarcerated whose goal is to identify and ameliorate those problems which may have led to the crime and which need to be addressed before release will be safe and appropriate.

Celebrating 100 years of mental health education and advocacy, Mental Health America is the country's leading nonprofit dedicated to helping all people live mentally healthier lives. With our more than 300 affiliates nationwide, we represent a growing movement of Americans who promote mental wellness for the health and well-being of the nation-every day and in times of crisis. In 2009, we are marking a century of achievement with a year-long Centennial Observance: "Celebrating the Legacy, Forging the Future."



Monday, September 14, 2009

Mich. to Rethink Teen Life Sentence

House committee considers bills amid 'emotional testimony'

by Karen Bouffard
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Monday, September 14, 2009

Lansing -- Michigan is among a growing number of states reconsidering whether juveniles should be sentenced to life behind bars with no chance of parole.

The trend has been spurred by scientific evidence that shows teens' brains are not fully developed, leaving them vulnerable to impulsive actions and poor choices.

Teens can be sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole in most states. But Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas have outlawed such sentences.

The Michigan House Judiciary Committee is considering bills that would allow those serving such sentences to be considered for parole, or ban such sentences. Two hearings have been held so far, and the committee plans to propose a package of bills addressing the issue later this fall, according to Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, the committee chairman.

"It was very emotional testimony -- we had victims' families testify, prosecutors testify, relatives of children in prison testify," Meadows said.

Citing scientific evidence about teens' brain development, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the sentencing of people to death for crimes they commit before age 18 is unconstitutional.

Child advocates have seized upon that ruling as a basis to challenge mandatory life sentences for teens, and the Supreme Court is poised to hear two such cases in November.

That argument doesn't hold water with Charles D. Stimson, a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.--based conservative think tank that published in August the book "Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens."

According to Stimson, the Supreme Court made its ruling partly because life sentences without parole provide a sufficient consequence for the most heinous crimes committed by teens. Eliminating such sentences would leave courts with few options for dealing with society's most dangerous teen criminals.

"We do have a juvenile crime problem in the U.S. that is much worse than in the rest of the world," Stimson said. "It's a matter for the states to decide."


Teen Lifers a Burden for State's Prisons

Mich. ranks second in number of young killers behind bars

by Karen Bouffard
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Monday, September 14, 2009

Lansing-- Michigan's high number of teens sentenced to life in prison without parole has child advocates questioning laws that give judges that option.

Behind bars are 346 teens who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed between the ages of 14 and 17, according to the Department of Corrections.

A study by the University of Texas says Michigan has the second most such inmates in the country. The report also says Michigan is among the harshest in the way it treats teens accused of major crimes.

Michigan's laws are unusual in that they allow juvenile judges to impose adult penalties on children too young to be transferred to adult criminal court, according to the report by the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs.

"Children simply aren't as culpable as adults because their brains aren't fully developed yet, and they are much more capable of rehabilitation," said Michele Deitch, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas and principal investigator of the study.

The number of teens sentenced to life in Michigan could climb following a recent rash of crimes in Metro Detroit that police say were committed by teens. In one of the more high-profile incidents, 12-year-old Demarco Harris is charged with shooting a 24-year-old woman to death as she sat in her car on West Outer Drive. His preliminary exam is set for Sept. 25.

Harris was charged as a juvenile, but with "adult designation" -- meaning Judge Leslie Kim Smith, who will oversee his trial in Wayne County Juvenile Court, has wide discretion when it comes to sentencing. If Harris is found guilty, he can be charged as a juvenile or an adult, or the judge can opt to review his conduct at age 19 and resentence him as an adult or juvenile.

If sentenced as an adult, Harris could face life in prison with no chance for parole.

The option to sentence juveniles as adults is "harsh" treatment, the study's authors said. Michigan's guidelines -- unlike most states' -- require a child who is convicted as an adult of first-degree murder to receive the same sentence as an adult: mandatory life in prison without parole.

The report, released this summer, gave Michigan the dubious distinction, along with three other states -- Pennsylvania, Florida and South Carolina -- of having children most likely to end up in adult prisons, because of mandatory sentencing laws and the ease of transferring juveniles into the adult system or imposing adult sentences.

One of the most notorious cases of a juvenile being prosecuted as an adult was that of Nathaniel Abraham of Pontiac, who was 11 in 1997 when he fatally shot Ronnie Greene Jr.

Abraham was convicted of murder as an adult at age 13 under a new sentencing law that allowed the judge to sentence him as an adult or a juvenile. Judge Eugene Athur Moore sentenced him to eight years in a juvenile facility.

Abraham, now 22, was sentenced in January to four to 20 years for drug trafficking.

'Cheapens value of life'

Advocates argue young teen criminals should get a second chance, as Abraham did. But many prosecutors and victims' relatives say some youths' crimes are so horrific that justice can be served only by a life sentence.

Greg King would agree. His daughter, 18-year-old Michigan State University student Karen Ann King, was at home in Saginaw visiting her parents on Jan. 3, 1997, when she was carjacked, kidnapped, raped, tortured and finally strangled by 15-year-old Shytour Williams and his cousin August McKinley Williams, 18, a prison parolee. Both were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

"Thinking (of freeing them) cheapens the value of my daughter's life," said Greg King. "The murderers get to see their families, talk to their families, receive gifts from their families -- and now we want to let them go. Myself and my family can only visit my daughter Karen at her gravesite."

The Texas study raises policy questions as Michigan is moving to deplete its prison population to reduce costs.

As Michigan faces a $2.8 million deficit for the budget year starting Oct. 1, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has shut prisons and paroled about 3,000 more prisoners than usual to shave $120 million in costs. Granholm has commuted more prison sentences than any other governor since at least 1969 -- 100 in less than seven years, compared with 35 during Gov. John Engler's 12 years in office.

The question becomes 'why'

After 29 years in prison, Henry Hill Jr., 45, claims he has been rehabilitated by the state Department of Corrections. He got life without parole for a shooting in Saginaw's Veterans Memorial Park in 1980, when he was 16.

Though a court-appointed psychologist found Hill to have the educational level of a third-grader when he entered the system, he attained his GED, earned certificates in several skilled trades and has finished several college classes. At Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, which houses 770 adults and 440 youthful offenders in separate wings, he tries to act as a mentor for teenage felons.

Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart said some of those housed at her facility, who as teens were sentenced to life, could safely be released back into the community.

"Absolutely," she said. "The question becomes: Are you scared of them, or are you mad at them? When we're locking up people because we're mad at them, we're compromising our resources."

Mike Thomas, the prosecuting attorney in Saginaw County, said the focus should not be on whether kids should be jailed with adult sentences, but rather why kids are committing the crimes.

"To me, that's much more important to deal with than whether a teen should get life without parole for killing," said Thomas, whose county has put more teens behind bars with no chance of parole than any other in the state.

"The question the Legislature should be dealing with is why are these kids doing this stuff," he said.