Does the Punishment Fit the Offender?

February 1, 2010 | | Comments Off on Does the Punishment Fit the Offender?

Life without the possibility of parole is a lenient sentence for an adult convicted of murder. It is also a lenient sentence for a youth offender convicted of murder. It is not, however, a lenient sentence for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicidal crime. In fact, life without the possibility of parole for non-homicidal youth offenders is cruel and unusual.

Most juvenile offenders are adjudicated in juvenile court. In Virginia, that court is called the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation, unlike the adult system, which focuses on punishment. States have these separate systems because of the general consensus that kids and adults are different, warranting different treatment. There are two main differences between juveniles and adults. Juveniles are not as competent as adults and there is a greater likelihood that they will change. 

The Supreme Court is soon expected to issue an opinion on whether  life in prison without the possibility of parole violates the 8th Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishment.  The Court took up the issue in response to two recent cases. Joe Harris Sullivan was sentenced to life without parole at the age of thirteen. He was convicted of raping an elderly woman. Even adult rapists are not typically punished as harshly as Joe Sullivan. The other case at issue involved a seventeen year old name Terrance Jamal Graham. He was sentenced to life without parole for committing armed robbery while on parole. It seems unquestionably clear that life without parole is disproportionate to the crime of robbery.


There are two obvious routes the Court could take. It could decide to create a bright line rule, preventing juveniles under a certain age from being eligible for a sentence of life without parole. On the other hand, the Court could determine that the decision of whether to impose life without parole should be made on a case by case basis. A “youth discount” is a solution to the juvenile life in prison without parole dilemma that is a half way point between a bright line rule and case by case analysis. The youth discount would require states to consider youth as a mitigating factor when applying adult sentences to persons under the age of eighteen. The discount would act as a “sliding scale”, reducing the sentence imposed according to the age of the offender.  The younger the offender, the larger the discount.

The most sensible solution seems to be to create a bright line rule, where life without parole may not be applied to anyone under the age of eighteen. Allowing for individual determination leaves too much room for bias. Factors such as race are known to affect decisions in regard to which offenders are prosecuted and the severity of sentences imposed.

            Another danger in allowing for individual determinations is that the offender’s age will be used against him or her. Judges tends to treat youthfulness as an aggravating factor because they sentence young offenders more harshly than similarly situated adults. Also, juries may fail to consider an offenders age because the nature of the crime is so heinous it overshadows any mitigation age might offer.

Drawing the line at eighteen rather than some other age is in line with the Court’s decision to limit death sentences to offenders who are eighteen years old and up. It is also in line with general assumptions about when young people should be treated as adults, since at eighteen people, are legally allowed to control their own affairs.

Sentencing young offenders to life without parole is unusual. The United States is the only county currently imposing such sentences, and even within  our own country it is unusual. Statistics show that of the states that apply life without parole to juveniles, there are slightly over one hundred juveniles serving that sentence. Especially telling is the fact that a vast majority of those serving life without parole are located within one state, Florida. In Roper v. Simmons, part of the Court’s decision to terminate the death penalty for juveniles was the trend, nationally and internationally, away from inflicting such a harsh punishment. Another factor which influenced the Court in Simmons was consideration of juvenile immaturity. The immaturity of young offenders is the most important factor for the Court should consider in forming its opinion on the constitutionality of life without parole as applied to youths.

A 1990’s study of juvenile culpability and decision making, by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, found an interesting discrepancy between youths judgment versus cognitive ability. The study found that sixteen year olds cognitive abilities are comparable to adults, however, judgment is not fully developed until the early twenties.  This inability to make good “judgment calls”, it is argued, should be considered when determining the criminal responsibility of young people. This lack of judgment  affects young people’s ability to appreciate risks and consequences. The study found that risk perception is lowest in individuals in their mid teens. This directly correlates with crime statistics that show that criminality  increases during this age period

Sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole, for non-homicidal offenses,  is the clearest form of cruel and unusual punishment. They are less culpable than adults and the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime. Young offenders can be rehabilitated. The focus should be on rehabilitation and prevention.  Coming up with solutions to prevent children from ever entering the system, and from re-entering it once discharged, is a far better use of financial resources than housing children in prison for the duration of their lives.

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