US Supreme Court considers constitutionality of sentencing children to life in prison; Paul Farmer speaks out in Globe Op-Ed

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court justices heard arguments in two appeals that challenge the constitutionality of sentencing children to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses. The cases of Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida involve a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old who committed rape and armed theft, respectively.

Defendant Joe Sullivan, now 33, is represented by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization. Mr. Stevenson maintains that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the cruel and unusual punishment characterizing such sentencing of youths under 14. In a quote from the New York Times, Mr. Stevenson comments, “To say to any child of 13 that you are only fit to die in prison is cruel. It can’t be reconciled with what we know about the nature of children.”

Bryan S. Gowdy, the lawyer for convicted juvenile offender Terrance Graham, expressed skepticism about a case-by-case determination of juvenile crimes not involving murder, saying, “At that age we cannot make a determination about whether or not the adolescent will or will not reform.”

These cases have received immense media attention and responses from practitioners at the frontline of health care and criminal justice for youths.

Drawing from his global health and justice work with children, Paul Farmer commented yesterday in a Boston Globe Op-Ed about the issues at stake in these Supreme Court hearings:

   These are serious crimes and both young men must be held accountable. The question before the court is whether they should be held accountable in a way that takes into consideration their immaturity, lack of judgment, vulnerability to peer pressure, and – perhaps most important – their capacity for redemption, growth, and change. If the court strikes down life without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, no offender would have an automatic right to parole release. Juvenile offenders would simply be given the opportunity to appear before a parole board and make the case that they have changed and deserve another chance.

Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children must not be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments, including capital punishment or life imprisonment without the possibility of release. Only two nations in the world have not ratified this convention: Somalia and the United States. It is noteworthy that sentences of life without parole for juveniles were uncommon in the United States before the 1990s, a period of fear about a potential rise in juvenile crime that was based on data later proven false.

    There are those who argue that international laws and norms should have no bearing on how the United States decides to dispense justice. But having treated thousands of children all over the world, I can say with confidence that American children are not more vicious, less human, or less deserving of mercy and compassion than children in any other country. Every other nation in the world finds ways to hold young people accountable for their actions without sentencing them to languish in prison until they die. The United States must do the same for its children.

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, is professor of social medicine in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where he is chairman, and is cofounder of Partners In Health, an international nonprofit health care organization. He is the author of “Pathologies of Power’’ and co-editor of “Global Health in Times of Violence.’’