The U.S. may be the only nation where a 13-year-old can be sentenced to life in prison without parole, even for crimes that do not include murder. This should trouble Americans as should all the barbaric sentencing policies for children that this country embraces but that most of the world has abandoned.
The court must consider the international standard in Graham v. FL and Sullivan v. FL. Both argue that life without the possibility of parole for a non homicide violates the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.
The court came down on the right side of this issue in 2005, ruling that children who commit crimes before 18 shouldn't be subject to the death penalty, correctly pointing out that juveniles are less culpable because they lack maturity, are vulnerable to peer pressure and have personalities still unformed.
For the majority, Justice Kennedy said executing children violated the 8th Amendment, conflicted with “evolving standards of decency” and isolated the U.S. in the world.
Roper took scores of juveniles off death row and threw a spotlight onto state policies under which young juveniles were increasingly being tried in adult courts and sentenced to adult jails, often for nonviolent crimes.
The practice is more troubling because it's arbitrary. Children who commit nonviolent crimes like theft and burglary are just as likely to be tried in adult courts as children who commit serious violent crimes. And black and Latino children are more likely to be sent to adult courts than white children for omparable crimes.
The rush to try more children as adults began in the 1980s when the country was gripped by hysteria about an adolescent crime wave that never materialized. Joe Sullivan, the petitioner in Sullivan v. Florida, was sentenced to life without parole in 1989 — when he was just 13 — after a questionable sexual battery conviction. His two older accomplices testified against the mentally impaired boy andreceived short sentences, one as a juvenile.
The Graham case is similar. A learning disabled child — born to crack-addicted parents — Graham was on probation for a burglary when he was 16. He had older accomplices. He was never convicted of the actual crime but was given life without parole for violating his probation.
These were two troubled children not beyond rehabilitation. The laws under which they were convicted violate human rights standards and the Constitution.