The United States could be the only nation in the world where a 13-year-old child can be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, even for crimes that do not include murder. This grim distinction should trouble Americans deeply, as should all of the barbaric sentencing policies for children that this country embraces but that most of the world has abandoned.
The Supreme Court must keep the international standard in mind when it hears arguments on Monday in Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida. The petitioners in both argue that sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The court came down on the right side of this issue in 2005 when it ruled that children who commit crimes before the age of 18 should not be subject to the death penalty. The decision correctly pointed out that juveniles were less culpable because they lacked maturity, were vulnerable to peer pressure and had personalities that were still being formed.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the practice of executing 16- and 17-year-olds violated the Eighth Amendment, conflicted with “evolving standards of decency” and isolated the United States from the rest of the world.
The Roper decision took scores of juveniles off death row. It also threw a spotlight onto state policies under which young juveniles were increasingly being tried in adult courts and sentenced to adult jails, often for nonviolent crimes.
The practice is even more troubling because it is arbitrary. Children who commit nonviolent crimes like theft and burglary are just as likely to be shipped off to adult courts as children who commit serious violent crimes. And the process is racially freighted, with black and Latino children more likely to be sent to adult courts than white children who commit comparable crimes.
The rush to try more and more children as adults began in the 1980s when the country was gripped by hysteria about an adolescent crime wave that never materialized. Joe Sullivan, the petitioner in Sullivan v. Florida, was sentenced to life without parole in 1989 — when he was just 13 — after a questionable sexual battery conviction. His two older accomplices testified against the younger, mentally impaired boy. They received short sentences, one of them as a juvenile.
The case of Terrance Graham has similar contours. A learning disabled child — born to crack-addicted parents — Mr. Graham was on probation in connection with a burglary committed when he was 16 when he participated in a home invasion. He, too, had older accomplices. He was never convicted of the actual crime but was given life without parole for violating the conditions of his probation.
These were two very troubled children in need of adult supervision and perhaps even time behind bars. But it is insupportable to conclude, as the courts did, that children who committed crimes when they were so young were beyond rehabilitation. The laws under which they were convicted violate current human rights standards and the Constitution.