Juvenile Life without Parole on Trial

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Is sentencing adolescents to life without the possibility of parole cruel and unusual punishment? Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether some young criminals are beyond rehabilitation. The two cases, Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, both deal with juveniles sentenced to life without parole for offenses other than homicide.

Terrance Graham, now 22, was given a life sentence without parole at age 17 after he violated probation on an armed robbery charge. Sullivan focuses on ah even rarer class of juvenile offenders--those who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 14. Joe Harris Sullivan, now 33, had a juvenile record for burglary, assault and killing a dog. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at age 13 after robbing and raping an elderly woman. Sullivan is also mentally disabled.

Attorneys for both men argued their sentences were unconstitutional because they did not take into account a juvenile's capacity for rehabilitation and how the possibility of parole may give adolescents a reason to change.

Under federal law and in 41 states (Kentucky's law is under court challenge), children under age 18 who commit serious crimes are automatically considered adults for criminal justice purposes. …