A Criminal Enterprise

How to Force a Plea? Life Sentences for Juveniles . . . .

Posted in Cases by Bidish J. Sarma on October 7, 2009

As I read and re-read the numerous articles and op-eds about the Supreme Court cases that challenge the constitutionality of juvenile life-without-parole sentences (JLWOP), I inevitably wonder why prosecutors defend the availability of such a harsh punishment.  I wonder this because such sentences turn out to be extraordinarily rare.  As this LA Times opinion piece points out,

“The extreme rarity with which sentences of life in prison without parole are imposed on juveniles — particularly younger juveniles — shows that this punishment is out of step with American values and society.  In the United States, only Joe Sullivan in Florida is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a non-homicide offense, committed at 13. That qualifies as ‘unusual’ under any definition of the word.”

Why are JLWOP sentences so rare?  There are a few potential explanations.  The sentence’s rarity may demonstrate that juries are unwilling to convict juveniles of crimes that subject them to such a severe penalty.  These outcomes could also be rare because juveniles commit few offenses that open up the possibility of a life sentence (which would reflect that the legislature drafted the criminal law to prescribe JLWOP in a limited number of cases).  However, given the vigor with which prosecutors have defended the availability of the punishment, I think another explanation might better capture the on-the-ground reality.

Prosecutors have broadly supported JLWOP.  As this Wall Street Journal piece notes, “The National District Attorneys Association, in a friend of the court brief, says that “life without parole for a juvenile may well be ‘unusual’…but permanent incarceration for the most violent, hardened juvenile offenders is by no means ‘cruel’ — especially by comparison to the harm such offenders could inflict on the public” if someday they could seek release on parole.”

The question is: Why have the district attorneys staked out this position?  It seems strange that publicly elected officials display such a strong commitment to a penalty that juries rarely find appropriate.  Perhaps there is something to be said about keeping the option open for the very worst crimes.  But, their support for JLWOP seems even stranger when you consider how JLWOP is viewed in the international context: “No country other than the United States incarcerates children for life without parole. We were the lone “no” vote against the 2006 U.N. General Assembly resolution calling on all nations to abolish such life sentences. Somalia is the only other nation that has not ratified Article 37 of the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child, prohibiting juvenile life-without-parole sentences.”

I believe prosecutors want to keep JLWOP on the table because it represents the ultimate power piece in plea bargaining negotiations.  Equipped with the ability to hold the possibility of JLWOP over juveniles’ heads, prosecutors make their jobs easier – pressuring children into making plea agreements and avoiding the costs associated with trials.  Though expedience in the criminal justice system is not necessarily a vice, it seems unfair when you imagine a prosecutor sitting across the table from a 13 year-old and telling him that if he doesn’t plead to a 50 year sentence, the government will take him to trial and seek to keep him in prison until he dies (with no possibility of release).  Keep in mind that the validity of plea agreements is governed by the principles of contract law.  Normally, children under a certain age lack the capacity to enter into contracts.  Imagine what happens to their limited capacity when prosecutors cloaked with the authority of the State confront them with the prospect of JLWOP.

We need to be critical of the District Attorneys’ position in the JLWOP cases.  Of course, defense attorneys have a legal obligation to zealously advocate on behalf of their clients.  They will be, as always, susceptible to criticism themselves.  But, the prosecutors’ arguments about the suitability of JLWOP distract us from the pivotal issues of neurological development and limited culpability that the Sullivan and Graham cases present the Supreme Court.

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  1. […] a look at some of the arguments at play, check out our earlier posts on the subject here and here. Tagged with: Constitutional Law, eighth amendment, graham v. florida, juvenile sentencing, […]


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