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On Trial: System That Locks Children up for Life Without Hope of Freedom

Protesters say teenagers must be given a chance of redemption - even if their crimes are horrific

Andrew Purcell

Youths walk in a line at the Texas Youth Commission facility (Photograph: Duane A Laverty/AP)

all the issues being considered by the Supreme Court this winter, none
is more emotionally charged than life sentences for teenagers. The
justices must decide whether sending minors to prison without any
possibility of parole is a "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by
the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. It is a narrow point of law,
but the purpose of America's penal system is in the dock.

other country locks up its children like the United States does. An
Amnesty International report found just seven prisoners in Israel, four
in South Africa and one in Tanzania serving life terms for crimes they
committed before they were legally considered to be adults. There are
2225 such inmates in ­American jails - each one a stark reminder that
in the desire to be tough on crime, faith in rehabilitation has been

Defenders of the status quo argue
that some rapists, murderers and violent criminals commit acts so
heinous they deserve to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, no matter how young they are.

organisations challenging this include the National Association of
Social Workers, Mothers Against Murders, the Correctional Chaplains
Association, the Juvenile Law Centre and a list of religious groups who
believe that however grave the offence, it is inhuman to offer a child
no hope of redemption.

The Supreme
Court abolished the death penalty for minors with its decision in Roper
v. Simmons four years ago. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony
Kennedy wrote that teenagers are less capable of making mature
decisions, more likely to act impulsively and more susceptible to peer
pressure than adults. He also observed that because their characters
are not fully formed, they have more potential to become productive
members of society.

The petitioners in
Graham v. Florida argue that this reasoning should apply beyond capital
crimes, especially where no death was involved. Terrance Graham robbed
a woman at gunpoint in her home, a few weeks after ­completing a
previous prison stint for armed burglary and assault. He was 17 years
old. The judge sentenced him to life without parole.

other case being considered by the Supreme Court, Sullivan v. Florida,
concerns a mentally impaired 13-year-old who raped an elderly woman. As
things stand, Joe Sullivan is one of at least 73 prisoners destined to
remain behind bars until they die, for crimes that were committed
before they turned 15.


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The American
Psychiatric Association's legal brief in his favour notes that
neuroscience has shown that during puberty, areas of the brain
associated with impulse control and risk evaluation are undeveloped. It
concludes that "condemning an immature, vulnerable, and
not-yet-fully-formed adolescent to die in prison is a constitutionally
disproportionate punishment."

Lotts was 14 when he stabbed his step-brother Michael Barton to death,
in what began as a play fight. The dead boy's mother has forgiven him,
but the state of Missouri allows no such leniency, having sentenced him
to life without parole on a charge of premeditated murder. In several
states, there is no minimum age limit at which children can be tried as

Because Sara Kruzan's father
was in jail, she was raised by her drug-addicted mother. By her early
teens, she had been coerced into working as a prostitute. The abuse
continued for three years, until she killed her pimp. She too was
sentenced to life in prison with no hope of being set free.

the Supreme Court hearings, Shannon Goessling spoke for the National
Organisation of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. "This system is not set up
for rehabilitation," she told the judges. "It is set up for retribution
and consequences." Jennifer Jenkins, whose sister was murdered by a
teenager, said "there are some people who are so fundamentally
dangerous that they can't walk among us."

Republican Senator Alan Simpson, part of a group of former offenders
petitioning for Graham and Sullivan, gave an impassioned response. As a
young man, he started fires, destroyed property, recklessly fired his
gun and hit a policeman. "For God's sake, give the guy a chance," he
said. "Sort them out case by case. You don't just salt them away for

Chief Justice John Roberts has
suggested that because "death is different" the Roper ruling has no
bearing on custodial sentences for minors. In all likelihood, the
decision will again come down to Justice Kennedy.

one point in the hearing, Mr Kennedy wondered: "What is the state's
interest in keeping the defendant in custody for the rest of his life
if he has been rehabilitated and is no longer a real danger?" US
prisons currently hold 2.3 million people. The larger question is
whether a country that incarcerates six times as many of its citizens
as the average developed nation has any interest in rehabilitation at

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