Stevenson argues before Supreme Court against life sentences for juveniles

On November 9, Professor Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), argued Sullivan v. Florida before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the petitioner. The case involves a Florida man who was sentenced to life in prison for a rape committed at age 13.

EJI's petition contends that life-without-parole juvenile sentences for non-homicide crimes violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Currently 109 people, all of them in the U.S., are serving such sentences; no other country imposes them. Seventy-seven of those prisoners are in Florida. Joe Sullivan, the petitioner in Sullivan v. Florida, is one of only two inmates whose crime was committed at 13.

"The clear consensus of the scientific community—as well as that of educators, correctional professionals, and faith communities—is that no reliable procedure or instrument exists to enable even mental health experts specifically trained in child development to identify unredeemably incorrigible young adolescents," the EJI said in its reply brief. "To expect that prosecutors or judges can do this reliably is to indulge a fantasy."

In its petitioner's brief on the merits, the organization called juvenile defendants "unfinished products, human works-in-progress. They stand at a peculiarly vulnerable moment in their lives. Their potential for growth and change is enormous. Almost all of them will outgrow criminal behavior, and it is practically impossible to detect the few who will not." In an NPR story, Stevenson deemed capital punishment and life without parole "two different kinds of death sentences. One is death by execution, the other death by incarceration."

Another case involving the same constitutional question, Graham v. Florida, was argued separately before the Supreme Court the same day.

Posted on November 9, 2009