Juveniles and Life In Prison

As you may already be aware, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments today pertaining to two Florida cases where juveniles (13 and 16 year-old boys) were sentenced to life in prison without the opportunity of parole.

Clearly this is a hot-button issue for many, and remember – I am not a lawyer (nor do I want to be) – but it seems to me that this is a relatively simple issue.  Remember, the cases must be weighed on their individual merits, and from this, precedent is set for similar cases in the future.

NPR had in-depth coverage on this issue this morning.  From their story, about one of the plaintiff’s:

Joe Sullivan was 13 years old when he was convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman. Two older defendants who had broken into the woman’s house with Joe fingered their younger accomplice for the rape, and they got lesser sentences.

Then things got worse for Joe.  Who is – remember 13.

[Joe Sullivan], who maintained his innocence, was represented by a lawyer who filed no appeals and was later disbarred.

When was the last time you dealt with a 13 year-old.  Much less, one who was “[i]ntellectually impaired since his childhood.”  Children of this age and ability level are expected to make mistakes, confuse right and wrong, and generally act their age.  This is why they have parents, and why the lack of parents at this crucial age can be extremely detrimental (but that’s for another post).

To be clear, I’m not condoning rape or other violent actions, but to give a developmentally disabled 13 year-old an incompetent attorney, convict him, and put him in prison for the rest of his life seems like something that merits a second look.

I think my position on this issue was cemented when I heard from the “Victims’ rights advocate,” Shannon Goessling, speaking about the then-13-year-old defendant:

“They are recidivists,” she says. “They’ve had every opportunity to avoid being in prison for the rest of their lives. They knew the consequences of their conduct.”

It is my sincere hope that nobody reaches their point of “every opportunity” at age 13, Ms. Goessling.

You can listen to the whole story from NPR at this link.


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