Thursday, October 29, 2009

Supreme Court Should Apply Roper Reasoning to Upcoming Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Cases

Supreme Court Should Apply Roper Reasoning to Upcoming Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Cases

By Charles Ogletree

The United States Supreme Court will hold oral arguments on November 9 in two cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, which will determine whether it is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to sentence an adolescent who committed a non-homicide offense to life in prison with no opportunity for release.

Petitioners Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham were both sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for offenses that did not involve homicide in Florida. Sullivan was 13 years old when he was sentenced to spend the remainder of his natural life in prison. Graham received life without parole for a parole violation at 17 years old. He was sentenced without a trial.

Sullivan and Graham present an opportunity for the Court to affirm the reasoning put forth in Roper v. Simmons, which struck down capital punishment for juveniles. Roper established what every parent knows and what science confirms: adolescents are fundamentally different from adults in maturity and judgment.

The extensive body of research on adolescent development proves that adolescents have not reached the level of mental or emotional development that allows adults to make mature decisions, think through consequences, and control their impulses. This same developmental immaturity also makes adolescents the strongest candidates for rehabilitation as they grow older.

In Roper, the Court asserted that these significant developmental differences have direct bearing on the culpability of adolescents. The Court ruled that their immature judgment, impulsive decision-making, vulnerability to peer pressure, and inherent potential for rehabilitation reduce culpability such that sentencing them to death violates the Eighth Amendment.

These principles should be applied to the constitutionality of juvenile life-without-parole sentencing. The same transient qualities of adolescence that the Court relied upon in Roper make it similarly inappropriate to subject a teenager to a permanent punishment of life in prison without parole. It is cruel and inaccurate, as the Court has recognized, to pass a final and irreversible judgment on a person whose character is still forming and undergoing significant changes.

Every state acknowledges this relative immaturity of adolescents through civil laws mandating their differential treatment. States restrict adolescents from a wide range of activities that require more mature judgment, such as voting, driving, and consenting to sexual activity. In Florida, the State even restricts the age at which adolescents are allowed to get tattoos, operate golf carts, or attend professional boxing matches. Yet when it comes to criminal sanctions - such as those imposed on Sullivan and Graham - the State disregards this reasoning that young people are indeed categorically different.

The extreme rarity of the punishment shows that it is widely rejected by American society. Only six states are known to imprison juveniles for life without parole in non-homicide offenses. It has been eighteen years since any state sentenced a 13 year old to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. Sullivan is one of only two people in the entire country serving such a sentence. The total number of 13 and 14 year olds sentenced to life without parole for any offense over the last thirty years is 73. Florida is the only state nationwide with a first-time juvenile offender serving life without parole for armed burglary (Graham's offense). This kind of national repudiation has been recognized by the Court as a characteristic of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. It should similarly be applied here.

Although not at issue before the Court, there is an appallingly disturbing component to these juvenile life-without-parole cases. Adolescents subjected to this punishment are disproportionately children of color. In fact, every single young person sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense is a racial minority.

It is my hope that the Court follows its logic in Roper and acknowledges that these punishments must be tempered by an understanding that young people are categorically different in maturity and culpability.

Life-without-parole sentences were designed to deal with the most dangerous offenders who are beyond the pale of rehabilitation. Science, the Court's own precedents, and common sense all teach us that adolescents cannot reliably be categorized among the worst adult offenders. The Court ought to do away with this cruel and inappropriate sentence.

Charles Ogletree is Jesse Climenko Professor of Law & Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Ogletree submitted an Amicus brief in support of Petitioners with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Giving Child Offenders a Chance" by Linda L. White

Giving child offenders a chance

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I was deeply moved by former senator Alan K. Simpson's Oct. 23 Washington Forum commentary, "A sentence too cruel for children," although I might be an unexpected person to be so moved. Twenty-three years ago, my daughter, then pregnant, was murdered by two 15-year-old boys. But in the years since her death, I have come to believe that sentencing teenagers to life in prison without the possibility of parole does not serve victims, offenders or public safety.

There is no reason to deny child offenders the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed after they have served a significant amount of time to see whether they have changed and matured. Only those who have demonstrated their growth and proved they are rehabilitated would be considered for parole. As Mr. Simpson's personal story shows, the potential for growth is enormous.

My family experienced unimaginable loss, but I still believe that young people -- even those who have done terrible things -- can be reformed. A permanent sentence should not be imposed on children whose characters are still forming.

And thank you to the senator for his candor in writing on this issue. His courage has served to strengthen my resolve to keep speaking out on this important matter.

Linda L. White, Magnolia, Tex.

The writer was among the signers of a friend-of-the-court brief in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, the two Supreme Court cases regarding the sentencing of juveniles.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"A Sentence Too Cruel for Children" by Alan Simpson

A Sentence Too Cruel for Children

by Alan Simpson
The Miami Herald
Friday, October 23, 2009

Rather than serving in the U.S. Senate for almost 20 years, or having so many other wonderful life experiences, I could have served a longer sentence in prison for some of the stupid, reckless things I did as a teenager. I am grateful to have gotten a second chance -- and I believe our society should make a sustained investment in offering second chances to our youth.

When I was a teen, we rode aimlessly around town, shot things up, started fires and generally raised hell. It was only dumb luck that we never really hurt anyone. At 17, I was caught destroying federal property and was put on probation. For two years, my probation officer visited me and my friends at home, in the pool hall, at school and on the basketball court. He was a wonderful guy who listened and really cared. I did pretty well on probation. At 21, though, I got into a fight in a tough part of town and ended up in jail for hitting a police officer.

I spent only one night in jail, but that was enough. I remember thinking, ``I don't need too much more of this.''

I had a chance to turn my life around, and I took it. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether other young people get that same chance.

On Nov. 9, the court will hold oral argument in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, two cases that will determine whether it is constitutional to sentence a teenager to life in prison without parole for a crime that did not involve the taking of a life. There is a simple reason the criminal justice system should treat juveniles and adults differently: Kids are a helluva lot dumber than adults. They do stupid things -- as I did -- and some even commit serious crimes, but youths don't really ever think through the consequences. It's for this reason that every state restricts children from such consequential actions as voting, serving on juries, purchasing alcohol or marrying without parental consent.

The Supreme Court recognized the differences between teenagers and adults when it held a few years ago, in Roper v. Simmons, that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on defendants younger than 18. Locking up a youth for the rest of his life, with no hope for parole, is surely unconstitutional for the same reasons. The person you are at 13 or 17 is not the person you are at 30, 40 or 50. Everyone old enough to look back on his or her teenage years knows this.

Peer pressure is a huge part of youth behavior, whether one grows up in Washington, D.C., or Cody, Wyo. The guys will say, ``Go get the gun. We'll pick up just enough money for tonight.'' And almost unthinkingly, you'll do it. There is simply no way to know at the time of sentencing whether a young person will turn out ``good'' or ``bad.'' The only option is to bring him or her before a parole board -- after some number of years -- and give the person the chance to declare, ``I'm a different person today'' -- and then prove it.

Parole boards can examine how youth offenders spent their time in prison. Did they read books or work in the library? Did they make furniture? Get a college degree? Those are critical questions for review.
If at that review a parole board finds out that a miscreant hasn't changed, then keep him or her in prison. But some juvenile offenders make real efforts while they are in jail, and we should make honest adjustments for them.

We all know youths who have changed for the better. When I was a lawyer in Cody, the court sometimes appointed me to represent juvenile offenders, and parents who knew of my history often asked for help with their children. I once handled the case of an 18-year-old who stole a car and drove it to Seattle. I later hired him as chief of staff for my Senate office, and he turned out to be one of the most able of the people I put in that job.

I was lucky that the bullets I stole from a hardware store as a teenager and fired from my .22-caliber rifle never struck anyone. I was fortunate that the fires I set never hurt anyone. I heard my wake-up call and listened -- and I went on to have many opportunities to serve my country and my community.

When a young person is sent ``up the river,'' we need to remember that all rivers can change course.

Alan Simpson, a Republican, was a U.S. senator from Wyoming from 1977 to 1996. He is among former juvenile offenders who have submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the petitioners in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Second Chances" by Raphael B. Johnson

Second Chances

by Raphael B. Johnson
October 16, 2009

At 17 I was captain of my high-school football team and on my way to college. But in November 1992 I went to a birthday party with friends. We were tussling around, and the chaperones threw us out. One of them knocked me to the ground, and I felt ashamed and angry. My friend had a gun in his car. I got it, came back, and fired three shots, killing one of the chaperones. I was convicted of murder and given 10 to 25 years in prison. grew up in an area known for gun violence and drugs. Like a lot of boys, I looked up to tough men who could fight and had been in prison. My first arrest came when I was 12: I stole my grandmother's gun and took it to school. At 14 I was sent to a boys' home. I studied hard and won a full scholarship to attend the University of Detroit high school. I excelled there, but my thinking was twisted. I didn't know how to manage my anger. As a result, a man lost his life the night of that party.

On the day I was to begin Marygrove College, I started a prison term instead. I was 18 and had hope: I could be paroled when I was still a relatively young man. I spent six of my 12 years in prison in solitary confinement. I promised myself I would read 1,000 books. I read 1,300. I became certified as a carpenter, plumber, electrician, and paralegal.

I was released from prison in 2004 after my third parole hearing. I received bachelor's and master's degrees from University of Detroit Mercy. I started a motivational-speaking and fitness-training company. As a community-reintegration coordinator, I help other ex-offenders start anew. I'm proof that people, especially teens, can't be judged by the worst thing they ever did.

There are countless examples of former juvenile offenders like myself who, given the opportunity to be contributing members of society, have done great things. Former senator Alan Simpson committed a serious federal offense as a juvenile (destroying government property) but became a GOP leader. Terry Ray was a violent repeat offender but became an assistant U.S. attorney. Charles Dutton was convicted of manslaughter at 17 but became a respected actor and director. Dozens of studies show that overwhelming majorities of juvenile offenders mature out of committing crimes.

Next month the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, two cases that will decide if it's constitutional to sentence teens to life in prison without parole. The court should give people like me a reason to keep improving themselves. Individuals who have committed crimes as teens should be allowed to have their sentences reviewed. Teenagers change. Adolescents, even more than adults, have enormous capacity for redemption. I know.

Johnson recently won a primary election for the Detroit city council.


Below is Raphael's acceptance speech for being awarded Community Organizer of the Year at the 2008 Steve Harvey Hoodie Awards. The Hoodie Awards honors local business establishments, community leaders, churches and high schools nation wide for their contributions and excellence in the community. The event was held on September 20, 2008 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, NV.