Life sentence for teens inhumane

December 6, 2009 — by Brandon Yang

In 1989, 13-year-old Joe Harris Sullivan broke into a 72-year-old woman’s home and robbed and raped her. Witnesses testified that Sullivan did commit those crimes. On Nov. 9, 20 years later, this case went before the Supreme Court, along with another case, in which Terrance Graham, then 17, was arrested for trying to rob a restaurant.

At first glance, neither defendant seems to have much of a reason to be back in court. The evidence is solid, and the courts of Florida where both events occurred declared them guilty. However, instead of trying to prove their innocence, they are trying to prove that their punishments—life sentences without the possibility of parole—are unconstitutional because they are “cruel and unusual.”

While even the harshest penalty is deserved for crimes of such barbarity, the scenario is not quite as conveniently “black and white” once minors, like Graham and Sullivan, come into the picture. Juveniles offer the gray part of the moral spectrum. While justice must always be served, the idea of young teens banished to prison for the rest of their life is unimaginable, even if they committed such heinous crimes. They should be given the chance to reform, as wasting reparable lives by locking them in a prison cell helps no one.

Unlike mentally mature adults, teens are have a much higher chance of correcting their behavior. Scientists have proven that the brain and behavioral maturation of teenagers continues until early adulthood. Since they are still impressionable, minors have a much higher chance of transforming than their adult counterparts with proper guidance and counseling. The state of Florida seems to think otherwise, since it currently boasts 77 prisoners who were sentenced to die in jail as a minor, more than all the other states combined.

Of course, allowing parole does not mean that former dangerous juveniles can return to society whenever they want. They need to show proof of personal reform to be approved for parole after serving a significant period of time in jail. Minors can still serve their whole lives in prison if they continue to cause trouble. Although economics should hardly be considered in the case of seriously misguided teens, there is absolutely no point in spending taxpayers’ money on keeping reformed teens in jail for life when they could be continuing their education or earning money to support their family.

The only question remaining is where the line should be drawn. Sullivan’s lawyer argued that children under 14 should be offered parole for crimes while Graham’s believed that anyone under 18 should have the chance. This issue, however, is not a matter of numbers or ages. It is ineffective and arbitrary to assign random privileges to specific ages. Since each case is different, parole hearings should still be offered in order to more closely evaluate each minor.

Kids need at least the chance to redeem and reform themselves, rather than allow most of their life to be wasted away for mistakes made at such a young age.

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