Young Lives, Long Sentences

The United States Supreme Court Monday tackles a sensitive legal issue that has taken on both great political and economic relevance this past year.

At a time when budget shortfalls are causing state and local bureaucrats to release prisoners early from over-crowded and expensive jails, the Justices have chosen to decide whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" precludes life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders who have not committed capital crimes.

Two Florida cases bring the topic to the High Court. In one, a 17-year-old was sentenced to life without parole after he was convicted for taking part in an armed home invasion while he was on parole for another crime. In the other, a 13-year-old was sentenced to life without parole after he was convicted for raping an elderly woman.

According to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization which tracks such things, of the 111 juveniles around the nation currently serving life sentences without parole for non-capital crimes, 77 are in Florida.

Terrance Jamar Graham and Joe Harris Sullivan, the two young men who are challenging the lengths of their sentences, argue simply that the punishment did not fit their crimes given their respective ages. Lawyers for Sullivan, only 13 when he was sentenced, state the core of his case this way: "Life imprisonment without parole sentences for children of 13 are so vanishingly rare as to make their repudiation by contemporary American society unmistakable." They are thus emphasizing the "unusual" in "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Lawyers for Graham have a tougher case to make — their client was 17 when he convicted a second time for a serious crime — and so they are trying to convince the Justices to extend the rationale of their ruling in Roper v. Simmons, a 2005 ruling in which a sharply-divided Court precluded capital punishment for murderers who committed their crimes before they reached the age of 18. That rationale, say Graham's lawyers, is that young offenders are "not yet fully formed human beings and, consequently, less morally culpable for their actions and more capable of reform than adults."

Not surprisingly, lawyers for the Sunshine State say that's hooey. In one of their briefs, they argue that the life sentences without parole for juveniles are just one component of a carefully-thought-out government scheme to help thwart juvenile crime. They contend that the Court's ruling in Roper ought to be confined only to capital punishment, and that even if it is to be extended it shouldn't be extended in these cases. The core question for the Justices will be whether the principles that guided them in Roper are deemed to apply here.

The good news for Florida is that the Court has generally tended to be quite deferential to the sentencing choices made by state legislators. The bad news for Florida is that four of the five Justices who limited capital punishment for juveniles in Roper are still on the Court and the fifth — Justice Souter — has been replaced by Justice Sotomayor, who is likely to side with her more liberal colleagues. If that coalition holds together in these two cases, we actually could see the end of these sorts of sentences.

That would be good news for Sullivan and Graham. You could also argue, over the head of Florida's Attorney General, that a ruling blocking life sentences without parole for juveniles wouldn't be a bad thing for Florida's taxpayers, either. After all, the State is fighting for the right to feed, clothe, house and otherwise look after the two young men for decade upon decade, well through most of the rest of the 21st Century — at a time when it is cutting back on basic services for millions of its residents who haven't committed violent crimes.

It costs a minimum of $20,000 per year to incarcerate someone in America these days. In Sullivan's case, if he lives to be 75, he will have been in prison for 60 years. That's at least $1.2 million Florida will have spent on him by the time he dies an old man in a jail cell. Multiply that by 75 (roughly the number of other juveniles so sentenced in Florida) and the cost for these prisoners alone over their lifetime would be over $100 million.

And don't forget — these 77 juvenile offenders are just a small percentage of the state's overall prison population.

It's unlikely that the economic case against automatic life sentences will garner much time or attention during oral argument in these two cases. The Justices may or may not countermand Florida's sentencing scheme on Eighth Amendment grounds, but they certainly won't meddle with the state's financial commitment to its prison system absent a showing that prisoners there are being denied basic human rights due to overcrowding. That's happened in California — but so far not in Florida.

No, in Florida, the question again is whether young people have constitutional protections against punishment which adults do not.

Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.