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My previous blog concerned the current Supreme Court case about juveniles serving life without the possibility of parole. I neglected to mention that there are two cases being considered: Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. When I wrote this blog I was not aware of a two-part report in AlterNet by Liliana Segura. I also was not aware of a report by Human Rights Watch and how both of these reports highlighted both the racial disparities of these sentences and the details of some of the cases. The Human Rights report found that black kids are about 10 times as likely to be sentenced to life without parole as whites. California has the highest black-white ratio at 22.5:1. (Incidentally this report cites such previous studies as a report by Mike Males and Dan Macallair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice called The Color of Justice in addition to a study by Building Blocks for Youth called And Justice for Some.)

The racism is further illustrated in the case of Joe Sullivan (one of the principals in the case before the Supreme Court referred to above). According to report by the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama (EJI) during his trial the prosecutor and witnesses made repeated, unnecessary reference to the fact that Joe is African American and the victim (was) white. One witness repeatedly said the perpetrator of the assault was a colored boy’ or a dark colored boy’ ” (quoted in Segura’s report). (For further background see one of several EJI reports.)

The Human Rights report found that there were a total of 2,225 serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles (mostly for homicide). Segura states that the number is now 2,574.

One of the reports by The Equal Rights Initiative of Alabama found that of those kids sentenced to life without parole at least 74 were 14 or younger when they committed their crimes. 

One of the lead attorneys in the cases before the Supreme Court, Bryan Stevenson, noted that Almost all of these kids currently lack legal representation, and in most of these cases the propriety and constitutionality of their extreme sentences has never been reviewed.”

Segura’s report is revealing in that it documents not only some truly unjust sentences, but also further documents the racism of such sentences. An example of the former is the case of a 16-year-old girl who killed her pimp after years of brutal treatment. Segura states that the girl worked for GG as a prostitute for three years. The hours were 6 p.m. until 5:30 or 6 in the morning. She and the other girls’ would come back and hand over their earnings to him. He was, like, married to all of us I guess,’ she says. ’ … Everything was his’.” She was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder. Despite attempts by her lawyer to have her sentenced as a juvenile, the judge described her crime as well thought-out’ and sentenced her to life without parole.” The judge said that she lacked moral scruples.” She is now 32 years old and has attorneys working pro bono on an appeal of her sentence.

The case of Joe Sullivan (Sullivan v. Florida) also illustrates the importance of knowing the context within which so many of these crimes occur. Segura writes that Joe was 13 years old in 1989 when he was accused of raping an elderly woman after a burglary carried out by an older group of teenagers. The older teenagers confessed to the burglary but pinned the rape on Sullivan, a charge he denied.” The two older boys were sent to a juvenile prison and were eventually freed. Joe however is still in prison. He is now 33 years old and confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. He started serving time when he was 14 and was repeatedly sexually assaulted.