Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Supreme Court Rules about Life Sentence for Children

A child can’t be sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole for crimes less than murder the Supreme Court has ruled. The court strongly asserted the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eight Amendment in the ruling.

In Florida, Terrance Graham, was 16 when he was involved in a armed robbery while out on parole. The prosecutors rightfully tossed his parole agreement and pursued charges for the armed robbery. The jury and the court found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison without chance for parole. He is now 22 years of age. (It is believed that Florida doesn’t have a parole system for any prisoner.)

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that few underage individuals, only 129 in all of American and 77 of those in Florida, were sentenced to life without parole. Most jurisdictions allow a prisoner to demonstrate he has reformed and should be allowed to return to society. Sense there are only 129 cases in the country that don’t allow a chance for review, the court decided it was cruel and unusual. Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with Kennedy along with four other justices.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from them majority. They believed, as Thomas wrote, that the court was imposing “its own sense of morality and retributive justice". He believes that states should have the right to impose such sentences as supported by the voters.

During the colonial times, there were forms of punishment that if applied to today’s standards would be judged to be cruel and unusual. Lawbreakers at the time could be whipped, placed in a stockade in the town square or hanged for more than just the crime of murder, in some cases, petty theft. Many representatives that attended the Several States Convention to write a new Constitution in 1787 were concerned that if the Eight Amendment was adopted, many of the punishments that were currently used at the time would be deemed cruel if not also unusual.

To accept the current court ruling as being appropriate, there must be a way to reconcile the Eight Amendment with shifting standards. The answer is embedded in the debate that the representatives engaged in at the convention. They supported a vaguely worded amendment that would allow each generation to apply their own standards of punishment. It wasn’t because they didn’t believed they had the right answers about crime and punishment. It was with the wisdom to know that perhaps better ways could be developed that were less cruel and unusual but still provide the deterrent that is needed. This, of course, would need to be determined by each generation based on the amount of crime and the sensitivities of the public (voters) at the time.

With only 129 children held without parole, it seems that the that voters through their judges, prosecutors and legislative bodies have made their sensitivities about crime and punishment very clear.

The court ruled with a well reasoned opinion that supports the community.

(1) The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Constitution 111 by Jonathan Elliot

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