Faculty Opinion: Junvile’s life sentences are too cruel

Lauren Fasig assistant in law and director of research for the center on children and families

As parents , teachers and coaches have long known, teens think differently than adults. So, it comes as no surprise that a substantial and growing body of science confirms that although adolescents may demonstrate cognitive abilities similar to those of adults, they are less capable of mature judgment.

For example, research in behavioral science shows that adolescents simply reason differently than adults. They are less able to control their emotions or consider alternative behaviors and are less able to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. The research also concludes that adolescents are more susceptible than adults to peer and environmental influences.

Neuroscientists have found that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the frontal lobe area that is related to functions such as impulse control, planning and risk evaluation, is not fully developed in adolescents. Developmental psychologists also find that adolecnets are less psychologically mature. During the teen and young adult years, the major psychological developmental task is forging identity. Scientific evidence indicated these are ongoing developmental processes yield adolescents who are capable of behavioral change.

One hopes these research findings were at the heart of the supreme Court’s consideration during its Nov. 9 hearing of two cases where juveniles who committed nonhomicide crimes were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. In both the Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida cases, the U.S. Supeme Court heard arguments on whether such a sentence for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Joe Sullivan was convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman after he and two older boys burglarized her house in Pensacola in 1989. Terrance Graham, of Jacksonville, was convicted of armed burglary, then violated his probation when he fled form police after a home invasion. Sullivan, at 13, was barely a teenager at the time of the offense. Graham was 17 when he violated his probation. Both were tried and sentenced in adult criminal court as a result of Florida’s direct file laws, which allow prosecutors to file cases in criminal court rather than juvenile court.

Some argue that the legal system has already incorporated the developmental factors that distinguish teens from adults into its consideration of juvenile crimes by creating a separate juvenile justice system. But adolescents who receive a sentence of life without parole are prosecuted and sentenced in adult criminal court. Because they are not tried in the juvenile justice system, these adolescents bypass any consideration of their developmental status that might be imbedded in that system. As criminal defendants, these youth receive no consideration of their immaturity or ongoing development.

In the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that teenage defendants should not face the death penalty because, “the susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means that their ‘irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult,’ ” quoting Thompson v. Oklahoma.

The court further reasoned that because adolescents are still forming their identities, they are capable of ceasing risky or antisocial activities. Our new understanding of teenagers only strengthens that line of reasoning. The U.S. Supreme Court should determine that a sentence of life in prison without parole imposed on juveniles meets the definition of cruel and unusual punishment forbidded by the constitution.