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Supreme Court case: juvenile offenders serving life in prison

The Supreme Court on Monday takes up two cases that explore the question: Should juveniles convicted of nonlethal crimes be sentenced to life in prison without parole?

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The US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile offender to death. On Monday, the high court takes up two cases that seek to extend that same constitutional reasoning to the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without any possibility of parole.

The two cases, Graham v. Florida, and Sullivan v. Florida), constitute the latest fault line in the high court's evolving Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.

Advocates for juvenile-justice reform are hopeful that the court uses one or both cases to ban the imposition of life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of nonlethal crimes.

The essence of their argument is that adolescents who commit crimes are still developing as human beings and their characters are still largely unformed. It is wrong to write them off as hopeless, to lock them up and throw away the key, these advocates say.

Supporters of tough criminal sanctions offer a counterargument that teens who commit adultlike crimes should face adult-style punishment. Juvenile transgressors are given opportunities to reform themselves. When those efforts fail and adolescents engage in an escalating pattern of violent crime, sometimes long-term incarceration is the safest alternative for society, proponents say.

Both the Graham and Sullivan cases involve young defendants in Florida who intentionally confronted their victims in violent criminal acts.

In 2003, 16-year-old Terrance Graham and another teen attempted to rob a Jacksonville barbecue restaurant. During the incident, the restaurant manager was struck on the head with a steel bar. Terrance pleaded guilty to battery and attempted armed robbery.

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