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Life sentences for kids?

The U.S. Supreme Court will once again take on the issue of excessive punishment for juvenile offenders.  In 2005 they ruled that the death penalty for those under 18 was unconstitutional.  This was the case of Roper v. Simmons where the court ruled that both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments "forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed."   In the case before the court two juveniles - Joe Sullivan, who raped a 72-year-old woman when he was 13, and Terrance Graham, who committed armed burglary when he was 16 -- were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.  What is also significant about these cases is that they came from the state of Florida.  Two reports in the New York Times document something worth taking notice of: out of 109 juveniles serving a sentence of life without parole, 77 (71%) are in the state of Florida, while 17 are in Louisiana.  Two are in Mississippi and one is in South Carolina.  Thus 89% are in the South.  A graphic found in one article shows that in Florida 84% of the juveniles serving this kind of sentence are black.  This is not at all surprising, since the incarceration rate for black youths has consistently been much greater than for whites. Also, incarceration rates in general have always been the highest in the South. Why does Florida have the greatest proportion of such cases?  Part of the answer comes from the words of ultra-conservative attorney general Bill McCollum who noted: "By the 1990s, violent juvenile crime rates had reached unprecedented high levels throughout the nation. Florida's problem was particularly dire, compromising the safety of residents, visitors and international tourists, and threatening the state's bedrock tourism industry."  A total of nine foreign tourists were killed during an 11-month period in 1992 and 1993, one by a 14-year-old.  Republican state legislator William Snyder added: "Instead of the Sunshine State, it was the Gun-shine State." However, some prosecutors and judges said Florida overreacted.  Judge Thomas K. Petersen said that: "Florida, probably more than other places because of that rash of crimes, overreacted. It was a hysterical reaction." Former prosecutor Shay Bilchik observed that "My biggest regret is that during the time I was in the prosecutor's office, we were under the false impression that we were insuring greater public safety when we were not." Judging from some of the comments of the justices noted in the most recent New York Times report it is hard to predict the outcome, as their opinions vary.  It just might come down to the opinion of the newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor.    

Keywords: death penalty, LWOP, Randall Shelden, youth

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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