Terrance Graham was a bad kid. No one's disputing that. At 16, he and some of his buddies robbed a barbecue restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. In the process, they bashed the manager on the head with a steel bar, hurting but not killing him. Graham got a year in jail and three years probation for that. But soon after he got out, he joined two older guys in a couple of armed robberies.
Graham was still a minor at the time, too young to vote, serve on a jury or join the Army. But he drew an adult-sized punishment. The Florida courts ruled he should stay in prison until he dies.
before his 16th birthday
Graham is one of at least 1,755 Americans serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed while they were under age 18. The U.S. is almost alone in the world in handing out this particular punishment; it was the only country to vote against a 2006 United Nations resolution calling for its abolition.
Life without parole for juveniles caught on during the hysteria over crack and youth gangs in the 1980s, part of a wave of tough-on-crime legislation that has quadrupled America's prison population to a record-shattering 2.3 million inmates. Almost every state as well as the federal government permits it. But now, with crime rates far lower, that punishment is coming under fire from a growing number of lawmakers, jurists, activists and even crime victims. Today the debate reaches a head as the Supreme Court takes up Graham's case and another, involving Joe Sullivan, who was convicted of burglary and rape at age 13.
at Columbia Correctional Institution
in Lake City, Florida.
The issue is not whether young offenders should be punished; it's only whether they should be given the chance to someday make the case that they've changed their ways. Graham and Sullivan are going to court with the support of an impressive array of groups, including, in addition to the predictable human rights outfits, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association. Their basic argument is that no matter what the crime, it makes no sense to declare anyone that young beyond hope of reform. After all, the whole reason we have a separate system of juvenile justice is precisely because of the notion that young people can change.