The Supreme Court looks at life sentences for teen offenders.

Oral argument from the court.
Nov. 9 2009 8:04 PM

My So-Called Life Without Parole

The Supreme Court looks at life sentences for teen offenders.

Joe Sullivan.
Joe Sullivan

In honor of 40 years of Sesame Street, today's Dispatch is brought to you by the letters L, W, O, and P (stands for life with out parole). And by the numbers 13, 17, and 2,574. And 73. And 9. And also 2. And by many, many other numbers that make you wonder how a roomful of people who went to law school presumably to avoid doing math could possibly spend two hours in a protracted exercise of freewheeling public accounting.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

For the first hour, the court will do the math on Terrance Jamar Graham, who was 17 when he was sentenced to life without parole for violating the terms of his probation for an earlier armed robbery conviction. The second hour is spent on Joe Sullivan, 13 when he was sentenced to LWOP for allegedly raping a 72-year-old woman.

The estimated number of juveniles serving life without parole in the United States is 2,574. The number of prisoners given life without parole for nonhomicide offenses is 111—77 of them are in Florida. Nine is the number of people serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed at age 13. And two is the number of 13-year-olds serving the sentence for nonhomicide offenses. Oh, and one is the number of countries that allows life without parole for teenagers.

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This matters because, for the purposes of determining whether a punishment is cruel or unusual under the Eighth Amendment, it becomes very important to squabble over constitutional long division. Or as the Count might say, "Ah, ah, ah ..."

Everything that happens today pivots on Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in a 2005 case, Roper v. Simmons, in which the court barred the death penalty for juveniles because teens are less able to control their impulses and resist peer pressure and thus are less culpable for their misdeeds. The question is whether, as Chief Justice John Roberts keeps insisting, Roper stands for the proposition that "death is different" or—as advocates for the teen offenders keep urging—for the idea that "adolescents are different."

Now, as Cookie Monster well knows, asking questions is a very good way to find out about things. (Someone should tell Justice Clarence Thomas.) So the real question for the court today is how to find LWOP for teens to be a bad idea without inviting a wholesale review of all sentencing law.

Bryan S. Gowdy, representing Graham, immediately gets into a math fight with the chief justice, who insists that if 38 states allow the LWOP sentence, it can't be all that unusual. Gowdy counts differently, saying that "if 31 States that have allowed it and never imposed it, that's evidence that it's very unusual."

Justice Antonin Scalia looks perturbed: "So when a sentence is imposed rarely, it becomes unconstitutional?"

This is when we learn the Song of the Day on Sesame Street, and today it's "Where Do You Draw the Line on Childhood?" Sing along if you know it.

Sings Scalia, "Where do you draw the line? At 21?"

Responds Gowdy: "We draw the line at 18."

Justice Samuel Alito chimes in, asking whether that line at 18 can be drawn for "someone who is a month short of his 18th birthday who commits the most horrible series of nonhomicide offenses?"

Roberts asks if a sentence of 50 years would be constitutional. Scalia wonders whether you can sentence a juvenile to serve until the year before his life expectancy? How about two years before his life expectancy? Gowdy replies that "only life without parole makes the unequivocal assessment that the adolescent cannot be returned to civil society."

Here is where the chief justice makes his pitch for eschewing any categorical rules and, instead, for "incorporating consideration of the juvenile's status into the proportionality review." If the courts could just assess whether punishments are out of proportion to the crime, there would be no need for drawing a categorical line at some arbitrary age. And proportionality review is already built into Eighth Amendment challenges. This will be Roberts' compromise proposal today: Let the courts consider the age of the juvenile on a "case by case basis." Which kind of assumes judges don't already do that, but any co-operation is better than none.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asks whether educational and vocational training are available to the LWOP kids. No. Ginsburg asks about the terms of their incarceration. Replies Gowdy: "They are going to stay in their cell and die there."

Alito, visibly dismayed, points out that "some of the actual cases in which this sentence has been imposed in Florida involve situations that are so horrible that I couldn't have imagined them if I hadn't actually seen them." He describes them in detail. They are horrible. Gowdy replies that case-by-case evaluation at sentencing just doesn't work "because you can only make the determination" about an adolescent's possibility of being rehabilitated "later in life." That's why you need parole.

Scalia points out that Gowdy assumes the only purpose of punishment is deterrence, "so once that's no longer a problem, we should let this person out. But one of the purposes is retribution—punishment for just perfectly horrible actions."

Says Gowdy: "Thirty years would have been a lot of retribution for Terrance Graham."

Ginsburg asks whether under the Roberts system "you'd have to create a new procedure that does not exist in Florida for proportionality review."

Scott Makar is Florida's solicitor general, and he will argue both cases. Unfortunately he's something of a mumbler, which forces the court's senior membership to serially bark at him to speak louder and slower and another justice to teach him how to crank up the lectern. Roberts beats on him awhile for proposing a categorical rule as rigid as his opponents—that LWOP is always constitutional. Then Justice John Paul Stevens asks whether Florida has a "minimum age when a juvenile can be transferred to adult procedures."

Ginsburg notes that the judge in the Graham case far exceeded even the punishment recommended by the prosecutor. "This judge, I think, surprised everyone in the courtroom."

Now it's Justice Sonia Sotomayor's turn to sing a round of "Where Do You Draw the Line on Adulthood." She asks Makar whether it "categorically violates the Eighth Amendment for a 10-year-old to be sentenced to life without parole?" Then she starts the chorus: "If 10 is too early, why isn't 14, 16, or 18?"

She also takes him to task for exaggerating the violence of Graham's crimes: "You are not seriously suggesting that the crimes at issue here are comparable to a rape or a permanent infliction of serious disability that Justice Alito spoke of?" (He is.)

Asks Ginsburg: "Do we know why Graham's co-perpetrators' sentences were dramatically lower" than his?  (Because they helped the prosecution.)

Scalia makes another pitch for doing away with categorical rules, but Ginsburg insists that line drawing is not a sin: "Florida does recognize the difference between an adult and a minor. And you have to make that line. Teenagers can't drink, can't drive, can't marry."

To the extent you've tuned in today to play Read the Tea Leaves With Kennedy, here's a clue. He says, "My initial instinct is that the difference in life with parole and life without parole is just not a factor in deterrence. ... 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?"

Muses Scalia: "I guess there is also no empiricism on whether the committed juvenile feels a lot better knowing that he will get out when he is 75 years old than he would feel knowing that he was there for life."

Makar says that speaking of empiricism, he has his doubts about the other side. He points out that his opponents "are asking that a constitutional rule be established on studies that have just been generated literally over this summer and have not been subject to meaningful review."

Before he can begin his rebuttal, Gowdy stumbles into Round Two of Read the Tea Leaves With Kennedy, who muses: "Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?"

The Sullivan case proceeds more or less along the same lines as Graham except that what should be the easier case—of the 13-year-old—may be procedurally barred from the high court's review. But Sullivan's lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, gives an impassioned performance. He insists that "to state to a child of 13 that you will die in prison is cruel," and  that "if you accept that Florida has adopted life without parole for a child of 13, you also have to accept that they have adopted it for a child of 6 or 5."

Stevenson is a master of the numbers today. When Justice Stephen Breyer asks him how many nonhomicide convicts under 18 get LWOP, Stevenson says, "One-hundred and eleven." When Breyer asks how many of the 111 are in Florida, Stevenson says "Seventy seven." When Breyer asks how many states the others are in, Stevenson says, "Six."

Breyer will get testy when Makar gets these same numbers wrong in his view. (Makar seems to be counting homicide offenses as nonhomicide offenses.) Breyer then argues that, when dealing with young people, there are some human beings who could make a moral argument against "taking a person's entire life away."

Since it appears that several justices believe the Sullivan challenge is procedurally barred, they begin to comfort themselves and Sullivan's lawyer that the 13-year-old can nevertheless still win by losing if he then brings a new challenge after they decide Graham. Which certainly sounds like there are at least five votes to do something nice for Graham and all the future Grahams of America. Whether that something nice will involve ending life without parole for juveniles or just asking judges to take age into account in ensuring that juvenile sentences are proportional is unclear. At the end of two hours, I think I can count three votes for a case-by-case proportionality review, three votes for a categorical rule, one vote for something I can't yet identify, one vote I can't quite discern, and one vote for not asking questions. Does all that add up to five votes for anything? Ah, ah, ah .... You do the math.

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