When it comes to juvenile justice, America handles things quite differently from other developed countries. In 2005, the United States was the last Western nation to abolish the juvenile death penalty. Today, it remains the only country in the world where judges sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Estimates from several nonprofit and advocacy groups claim there are currently around 2,500 inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they reached the age of adulthood.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions to limit the use of such a powerful sentence on youth offenders, Florida is one of the top four states where judges still frequently issue life without parole sentences. Eighty-four percent of all juvenile life without parole sentences (JWOP) issued between June 2012 and May 2015 were handed in California, Louisiana, Florida, and Michigan. Florida had the second-highest number of JWOP sentences (26) in this period, while Louisiana and Michigan had the highest numbers per capita.
Graham v. Florida (2010)
In 2010, SCOTUS ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole unless they were convicted of homicide. The case was based on that of Terrance Graham, who entered a Florida state prison at 19 to serve a life sentence. The Jacksonville resident had been convicted of several crimes in his late teens. At 16, he was convicted of armed burglary, a first-degree felony. He violated his probation at 17 when he fled police after allegedly participating in a home invasion robbery. Prosecutors requested a 30-year term; the judge issued the harshest sentence a juvenile could face — life in prison without parole.
In 2009, Graham was a 22-year-old prisoner serving a life sentence for non-homicide crimes he had committed before turning eighteen. A study by Florida State University researchers reveals that Florida sentences more juveniles to life without parole than all other states combined for non-murder offenses. The next year, the Court banned life without parole for non-homicide crimes for juveniles, calling it an “especially harsh punishment.”
Miller v. Alabama (2012)
In Miller, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that juveniles convicted of murder cannot be subjected to mandatory life without parole. They stated that mandatory life without parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment. The Justices emphasized that judges must be able to consider the individual traits of juvenile defendants to issue a reasonable sentence. Several traits were listed as possible mitigating factors.
The Case Against JLWOP
Scientists have long established that adolescents do not function the same way as adults; the human brain does not fully mature until the mid- to late- twenties. The prefrontal cortex of the brain (where all planning and rationalizing take place) is particularly underdeveloped in teens. They are known for making rash decisions and succumbing to peer pressure; many are incapable of fully understanding the possible long-term consequences of their actions. Because the brains of juveniles are still so malleable, juveniles are also much more likely to be rehabilitated than adult prisoners. It is thus considered unfair to take their futures away as a punishment for crimes they committed before the age of reason.
The Importance of Strong Juvenile Criminal Defense
Though juveniles are more likely to bounce back after a streak of criminal activity, approximately 62% of prisoners sentenced to life without parole as juveniles reported not participating in programs designed to rehabilitate them. The uncertain outlook for prisoners who were sentenced as juveniles to severe penalties marks the importance of having a strong criminal defense attorney on your side.
For over 30 years, Brian Gabriel of The Law Office of Gabriel & Gabriel has dedicated his career to providing comprehensive criminal defense to juveniles throughout West Palm Beach. He has defended thousands of juvenile cases and produced many successful outcomes for his clients. With an attorney by your side, you or your child can fight for the best possible results in your unique situation. Call 561-622-5575 for a free case review or contact us online.