Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Wizard CaT » Tue Oct 06, 2009 4:21 pm

JESS BRAVIN wrote:WASHINGTON -- In 1989, Joe Sullivan was convicted of breaking into a Pensacola, Fla., house, stealing jewelry and coins, and raping the 72-year-old woman who lived there.

Coming after 17 prior offenses that included assault, burglary and animal cruelty, a judge found that rehabilitation was hopeless. He sentenced Mr. Sullivan to life imprisonment, which in Florida carries no possibility of parole.

Mr. Sullivan was 13 years old. That fact alone makes the sentence unconstitutional, says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala., nonprofit that represents indigent defendants.

Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar says the state is entitled to authorize severe punishment for offenders who deserve it, regardless of age. "There is no consensus against life sentences for juveniles, particularly for heinous crimes such as sexual battery," his brief argues.

On Nov. 9, the two will make their arguments before the Supreme Court. In one of the central criminal-justice cases of the 2009-10 term, which began Monday, the high court for the first time will consider whether sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole for a crime in which no one died violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments."

In a companion case the same day, the court also will weigh the fate of Terrance Graham, now serving life for armed burglary of a Jacksonville, Fla., barbecue restaurant at age 16.

Mr. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative says "kids just change too much" in their teenage years to write them off forever. "What we are saying is that you cannot make that kind of a judgment about a juvenile."
[Joe Sullivan life sentence Florida 1989] Equal Justice Initiative

Joe Sullivan, shown in 2007, was convicted of rape at age 13 and sentenced to life in prison without parole in Florida in 1989.

Charles D. Stimson, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and former prosecutor who has been helping Mr. Makar prepare ahead of arguments, says "some acts are so heinous and show such a callous disregard for human life even if their actions don't result in death" that life without parole is appropriate.

The court's ruling, expected before July, will clarify the meaning of its last major juvenile justice case, Roper v. Simmons, which in 2005 held it unconstitutional to execute anyone for a crime committed as a juvenile. There, the court found that juveniles lack the "psychological maturity" to fully comprehend the gravity of wrongdoing that would justify death. "Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile" might not reflect an "irretrievably depraved character," the court said.

Since the 1970s, the court has been narrowing the scope of the death penalty to those people considered most reprehensible. When it comes to prison terms, however, the court rarely has intervened. Justice Anthony Kennedy often has cast the deciding vote, siding with liberal justices to limit the death penalty, but joining conservatives to uphold severe prison terms.

The court ordered separate arguments in the Sullivan and Graham cases, suggesting it could be inclined to distinguish the two based on their ages.

"The difference between 13 and 16 matters," says Frank Colucci, a professor at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, Ind., and author of "Justice Kennedy's Jurisprudence," published in September. Prof. Colucci predicted Justice Kennedy will write an opinion in this case that will stress "the capacity of juveniles to be morally responsible for their crimes."

The court weighs evidence that a punishment is both cruel and unusual.

A July study by Florida State University's Public Interest Law Center estimated that nationwide, there were 111 inmates in seven states serving life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes committed as juveniles. The overwhelming majority, 77, were in Florida prisons.
On the Docket
That suggests the sentence is unusual. But is it cruel?

"It's too cruel to be constitutional," says Republican former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who joined six other former juvenile offenders in a friend of the court brief supporting Messrs. Sullivan and Graham. "For me, it was very important to have some second chances."

Mr. Simpson says he was "a monster" who repeatedly got into trouble with his pals, although his offenses -- torching an abandoned building, shooting up mailboxes and killing a cow -- don't approach those of Messrs. Sullivan and Graham.

The National District Attorneys Association, in a friend of the court brief, says that "life without parole for a juvenile may well be 'unusual'...but permanent incarceration for the most violent, hardened juvenile offenders is by no means 'cruel' -- especially by comparison to the harm such offenders could inflict on the public" if someday they could seek release on parole.

Write to Jess Bravin at jess.bravin@wsj.com


http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125469908713662969.html
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Shackler » Fri Oct 09, 2009 10:12 am

Life sentences in general are cruel, if not unusual.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Coda » Fri Oct 09, 2009 2:07 pm

Shackler wrote:Life sentences in general are cruel, if not unusual.


That's why it's a two-pronged test. The punishment must be both cruel AND unusual to be considered unconstitutional.

Cruel but not unusual supports such punishments as solitary confinement, life imprisonment, and the death penalty, as none of these are particularly unusual so long as their use is warranted by the crime.

Unusual but not cruel means a judge is free to come up with a highly unorthodox punishment if he feels it fits the case, as long as it isn't cruel.

Neither cruel nor unusual would be such sentences as small fines and community service, of course.

That which is both cruel and unusual is generally considered torture. Punishments that inflict severe pain (whether psychological or physical) that are not well-founded in established precedent are what are illegal. This is one of the reasons why such things as mandatory sterilization are unacceptable even if such a punishment were appropriate for the nature of the crime.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Wizard CaT » Fri Oct 09, 2009 7:19 pm

Shackler wrote:Life sentences in general are cruel, if not unusual.


I don't see whats cruel about it. Some people don't even deserve that much.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Relee » Sat Oct 10, 2009 7:15 am

If you're like that as a kid you should probably go to an asylum rather than a prison. It's clear you can't be in society, and maybe you'll be stuck that way, but maybe they could figure out a way to fix them there. Life in prison isn't going to fix anything.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Plasman » Sat Oct 10, 2009 8:46 am

Makes you wonder how he turned out like that in the first place, doesn't it?

I'm a believer in that you sow what you reap, but someone this young clearly has not had the experience necessary to make sensible judgements about their life. Okay, so he committed a horribly violent crime, but like I said, how did he get to this point? And why was his morality so skewed that he would think this was a good idea?

Was he already known to police? Did he have a history of violence or crime? How was this allowed to happen?
These are all things that should have been attended to long before he was brought to the attention of a trial. It should not have come to a life sentence at 13 years of age.

I'm ending this post before I start ranting on "the world isn't what it used to be, things were different in my day" etc. :doubtful:
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Wic » Sat Oct 10, 2009 9:55 am

Where the hell were the kid's parents?

There should be some foster families that were paid to look after a sentenced kid 24/7 and provide them theraphy and a good, loving environment. Jailhouse is probably as bad as the family this kid comes from.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Shackler » Sat Oct 10, 2009 9:58 am

Coda wrote:
Shackler wrote:Life sentences in general are cruel, if not unusual.


That's why it's a two-pronged test. The punishment must be both cruel AND unusual to be considered unconstitutional.


That's my point. The test doesn't help against bad things that have been in effect for a long time.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Wizard CaT » Sat Oct 10, 2009 10:19 pm

Plasman wrote:Was he already known to police? Did he have a history of violence or crime? How was this allowed to happen?
These are all things that should have been attended to long before he was brought to the attention of a trial. It should not have come to a life sentence at 13 years of age.


Very second paragraph:

Coming after 17 prior offenses that included assault, burglary and animal cruelty, a judge found that rehabilitation was hopeless. He sentenced Mr. Sullivan to life imprisonment, which in Florida carries no possibility of parole.


I shouldn't really be surprised that on this board more people would rather save him then put a noose around him.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Plasman » Sun Oct 11, 2009 8:09 am

Sorry - wasn't reading the story close enough. :sweatbead:

But my questions were more rhetorical anyway.
There were plenty of warning signs around this teenager; it's disappointing that nothing was done earlier. (Mind you, I'm making a gross assumption that no-one successfully attempted to help this youth before this situation came about, so... :? )

Wizard CaT wrote:I shouldn't really be surprised that on this board more people would rather save him then put a noose around him.

Well, it's easy to make a decision about this sort of thing when you're not actually involved. I doubt I'd feel exactly the same way if it had been, say, my mother who had been abused.
All the same, he should be helped nonetheless. It may be he can't return to society, but maybe he can still make something of his life.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Coda » Tue Oct 13, 2009 8:20 pm

Shackler wrote:
Coda wrote:
Shackler wrote:Life sentences in general are cruel, if not unusual.


That's why it's a two-pronged test. The punishment must be both cruel AND unusual to be considered unconstitutional.


That's my point. The test doesn't help against bad things that have been in effect for a long time.


Nor is it supposed to. This is a constitutionality test -- government organizations aren't in violation of the constitution for maintaining the status quo. There are other things you can do as a matter of federal, state, and local law to lay question to the ethics of a given punishment; it's simply not a constitutional issue at that point.

The Constitution is a document intended to create a solid, stable, predictable foundation for the rest of the law. One of its purposes is to make it a slow and difficult process to change the fundamental basis of the way the country is governed. Therefore, it is appropriate for the Constitution's construction to account for history so that changing attitudes don't upset precedent and introduce new interpretations of well-founded principles.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Shackler » Tue Oct 13, 2009 8:28 pm

I disagree.
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Re: Life in Prison for Minors -- Cruel and Unusual?

Postby Coda » Tue Oct 13, 2009 9:05 pm

Shackler wrote:I disagree.


And you're welcome to do so. ;)

However, let me present some counterarguments:

The Constitution itself is exceedingly difficult to change. It requires a 2/3 majority of Congress PLUS a 3/4 majority of the states in order to effect any modifications.

The Constitution itself sets the structure and manner for creating and modifying the law of the country. It is MUCH easier to prevent a law from being passed than to pass it -- if the Senate, the House, OR the President says no, the bill is defeated, and only the President's vote can be overridden, and even that requires a strong majority; to PASS a bill, you have to achieve the agreement of all three, and even then the law is subject to being declared unconstitutional or in contradiction to other law by the judicial branch.

And even beyond this, it is supposed to be exceedingly difficult and heinous to actually violate the Constitution -- it's supposed to be a big deal, and there shouldn't need to be any question of constitutionality in the day-to-day operations of local governments. (In fact, for private individuals there are only two ways to do it: enslave another human being, or transport alcohol across state lines in violation of the laws of that state.) A Supreme Court justice once wrote that he did not expect any state to pass a law obviously violating any principle in the Eighth Amendment -- that is, the Supreme Court finds it obvious that the things that have been considered legal should not in general have to worry about questions of constitutionality.

(As an interesting aside, the Eighth Amendment doesn't apply to LOCAL governments, only to federal and state, and a city police department is free to inflict cruel and unusual punishments upon its citizens in the absence of state laws to the contrary.)
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