Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)

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[Dwayne Betts]

Since the Ricci opinion came out, it seems only right to talk about two cases that will be before the court soon. The issue of JLWOP will come before the Supreme Court soon - law firms all over the country are preparing amicus briefs in the effort to sway the courts one way or the other. The two cases in question are both Florida cases, chosen because they are both instances of JLWOP for crimes that didn't result in murder.  In one, Joe Sullivan was sentenced to JLWOP for raping at 72 year old woman. He was 13 at the time and it was 1989. In the other, Terrance Graham got life for committing a home invasion while on probation for robbery. He was 17. I think these cases were taken because they aren't murders. It's hard to argue for any kind of leniency (if you call life with the possibility of parole leniency) when someone has been killed.  The backdrop of this case is the Court's decision that the giving a juvenile a death the death penalty violates the 8th amendment. 


My fear is that in settling the JLWOP issue - there will be other issues around sentencing that don't get resolved. In a state like Virginia, for all substantive purposes there is no difference between sentencing a juvenile to 55 years or life - because there is no parole. In the juvenile death penalty case Judge Kennedy said that even the most heinous crime isn't evidence of a child that cannot be rehabilitated. He said the heinous crimes are not "evidence of irretrievably depraved character."  That's why the United States leads all industrial countries in incarceration by a nice margin - and why we are the only industrialized country to sentence juveniles to life without parole. 

The United States leads all industrial countries in incarceration by a nice margin - and why we are the only industrialized country to sentence juveniles to life without parole.  The sentencing project says that there are about 1750 juveniles currently serving JLWOP and that of those nearly 2 thousand 73 were thirteen or fourteen when they committed their crimes. I can't begin understand never giving someone who was fourteen at the time of their offense a chance to walk in front of a parole board and plead his case. (Especially when the rate of parole is as low as 2 percent in some states) More than that, if the deterrent value of a life sentence for an adult is common knowledge - it's also true that researchers have shown that juveniles don't take that knowledge as a deterrent.

The real thing, away from the statistics and the gory details of crimes that haunt families and communities for long periods of time, is that I don't think our justice system has evolved to something more productive and effective than it was fifty or a hundred years ago. In most other industrialized nations, life is something conceivable like 30 years or 50 years, and parole is an option. These nations have lower incarceration rates than the US - they have less crime. Somewhere our justice system got off track - we replaced medieval guillotines and rope for jail cells that don't aim to rehabilitate. I hope the SCOTUS gets it right on this one.
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