Are Life Sentences Appropriate for Juvenile Offenders?

By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair


The United States Supreme Court finally addressed for the first time a long debated issue: whether juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole (“LWOP”), a sentence normally reserved for the very worst offenders. In its decision finding that LWOP for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional, the Court pointed out that only six states in this country do not have LWOP for juveniles. Fortunately, the State of Texas is one of those states. The Legislature last year eliminated the penalty provision from its sentencing practices.


But thirty-seven other states and the District of Columbia permit juveniles to be sentenced to LWOP for non-homicide offenses under specific circumstances. Seven other states allow LWOP for juveniles but only for homicide crimes. Federal law permits juveniles as young as 13 to be sentenced to LWOP while a child as young as 5 years of age can be sentenced to LWOP in Florida, according to the Supreme Court.


The court’s recent decision addressed only those juveniles sentenced to LWOP for non-homicide offenses—a penalty available in only twelve states as pointed out by the court. Therefore life sentences, with possibility of parole are still permissible.


The court was independently able to identify a total of 129 juveniles serving LWOP in those twelve states with 77 of them being in the State of Florida.


The case before the court originated from Florida. It involved the LWOP imposed on Terrance Jamar Graham. The court outlined Graham’s troubled personal and criminal history. You can be the judge of whether you think a LWOP was the appropriate sentence. More to the point, you can decide whether you think the State of Florida—or any of the other eleven states that have LWOP for juveniles committing non-homicide offenses—can keep juvenile offenders like Terrance Graham locked up for the rest of their lives because the Supreme Court held that life imprisonment per se is not “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court pointedly noted that an offender sentenced to life imprisonment as a juvenile has a right to parole eligibility but not to parole release itself, thus the potential for “natural life” incarceration. You be the judge.


Born to crack cocaine addicted parents in 1987, Terrance Graham had Texas-size obstacles facing him the moment the doctor smacked life into his bottom. By elementary school, the kid was diagnosed with “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”—a disorder that generally leads to aggressive and self-destructive behavior. By age 9, Graham was smoking and drinking and graduated to smoking marijuana by age 13.


Three years later Graham moved up the crime food chain. The Supreme Court said he and three other school-age teens attempted to rob a barbeque restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. One of the kids worked at the restaurant. He left a back door open so Graham and one of the other teens, both of whom were wearing masks, could enter through it that night. The kid with Graham attacked the restaurant’s manager, striking him twice in the back of the head with a metal bar. They fled without getting any money to a car driven by the fourth teen.


Graham was later arrested. The local district attorney had the option of charging the 16 and 17 year old teens as adults. He decided to charge Graham as an adult with the crimes of “armed burglary with assault or battery”—a felony carrying a maximum penalty of life without parole—and attempted armed-robbery, a felony carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years. As part of a plea agreement, Graham pled guilty to both offenses—and in an effort to get the trial judge to accept the agreement, the juvenile wrote the judge a letter. “This is my first and last time getting in trouble,” he said. “I’ve decided to turn my life around … I made a promise to God and myself that if I get a second chance, I’m gonna do what it takes to get to the [National Football League].”


The judge was moved by the letter. He accepted the plea agreement. He deferred a finding of guilt on both charges and sentenced Graham to concurrent 3 year probated terms. The judge did require Graham to spend the first twelve months of the probated terms in the county jail, and with the time the teen had already served, he was immediately released from custody.


The young man’s resolve to follow the “straight and narrow” lasted less than six months. He and two accomplices, both of whom were 20 years of age, committed a home invasion robbery. They held the occupants of the home hostage under gunpoint while they ransacked the house. Before they fled, they locked the occupants in a closet. The trio then attempted another home invasion. This one did not go as well. One of Graham’s accomplices was shot during the attempted break-in.  Graham, who was driving a vehicle borrowed from his father, drove the wounded accomplice and the other accomplice to a nearby hospital. As he was about to drive away, a policeman tried to stop him. He fled. The ensuing high speed chase ended when Graham crashed into a telephone pole. The police found three handguns in the vehicle.


Shortly after these criminal episodes, Graham’s probation officer filed an affidavit with the court that had imposed the previous deferred adjudications. The Supreme Court said the affidavit alleged that Graham had violated the terms of his probation by possessing the firearms, committing crime and associating with people involved in crime. In 2006 a new judge conducted a hearing to determine whether Graham had in fact violated the conditions of his probation. While Graham maintained he had not been involved in the alleged home invasion, he admitted he had violated the terms of his probation by fleeing from the police at the hospital.


The judge warned him that such an admission was sufficient alone to violate his probation and expose him to possible LWOP sentence. The judge had the discretion to impose a sentence from a 5 year minimum to a maximum of life without parole. The State recommended a sentence 30 years on the armed burglary charge and 15 years on the attempted armed robbery count. Before imposing sentence, the new judge had this to say to young Graham:


“Mr. Graham, as I look back on your case, yours is really candidly a sad situation. You had, as far as I can tell, you have quite a family structure. You had a lot of people who wanted to try and help you get your life turned around, including the court system, and you had a judge who took the step to try and give you direction through his probation order to you a chance to get back onto track. And at the time you seemed through your letters that that is exactly what you wanted to do. And I don’t know why it is that you threw your life away. I don’t know why.

“But you did, and that is what is so sad about this today is that you have actually been given a chance to get through this, the original charge, which were very serious charges to begin with … The attempted robbery with a weapon was a very serious charge …


“[I]n a very short period of time you were back before the Court on a violation of this probation, and then here you are two years later standing before me, literally the—facing a life sentence as to—up to life as to count I and up to 15 years as to count 2.


“And I don’t understand why you would be given such a great opportunity to do something with your life and why you would throw it away. The only thing that I can rationalize is that you decided that this is how you were going to lead your life and that there is nothing we can do for you. And as the state pointed out, that this is an escalating pattern of criminal conduct on your part and that we can’t help you any further. We can’t do anything to deter you. This is the way you are going to lead your life, and I don’t know why you are going to. You’ve made that decision. I have no idea. But, evidently, that is what you decided to do.


“So then it becomes a focus, if I can’t do anything to help you, if I can’t do anything to get you back on the right path, then I have to start focusing on the community and trying to protect the community from your actions. And, unfortunately, that is where we are today is I don’t see where I can do anything to help you any further. You’ve evidently decided this is the direction you’re going to take in life, and it’s unfortunate that you made that choice.


“I have reviewed the statute. I don’t where any further juvenile sanctions would be appropriate. I don’t see where any youthful offender sanctions would be appropriate. Given your escalating pattern of criminal conduct, it is apparent to the Court that you have decided that this is the way you are going to live your life and that the only thing I can do now is to try and protect the community from your actions.”


Community protection is unquestionably the reason why so many states have enacted laws to lock away juveniles for a very long time. The Supreme Court called upon the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics to examine the latest available juvenile crime data. According to BJS figures, 13,480 adults and juveniles were arrested in 2007 for homicide crimes. BJS also found that 57,600 juveniles were arrested for aggravated assault; 3,580 for forcible rape; 34,500 for robbery; 81,900 for burglary; 195,700 for drug offenses; and 7,200 for arson.


These are troubling statistics. This level of crime among our young people offers insight as to why our society is so afraid of its young. But is it a rational fear? A significant number of state legislatures apparently feel that it is because of their endorsement of LWOP sentences for juveniles. The Supreme Court in the Terrance Graham case did not do very much to discourage this legislative mindset. The Court said a life sentence, that could keep a juvenile locked up for the rest of his natural life, is not unconstitutional. Essentially, the court held that the actual period of incarceration for juveniles sentenced to life is strictly a state matter. All the Court concerned itself with was the finding that states cannot at the outset sentence a juvenile to LWOP, precluding any “possibility” of release.


What remains in the wake of the Terrance Graham decision is the right of the states to try juveniles as adults and commit them to adult prison facilities for life. Prisons for juveniles are violent crime universities. These “kids” are forced to survive through sheer violence or become victims of predatory sexual and physical abuse. There is no middle ground for young men in adult prisons. Our own government in one “terror” case told a 15-year-old “terror suspect” that if he didn’t confess, he would be sent to an American prison where big, black inmates would “rape” him. Clearly, our own government understands what happens to juveniles in adult prisons.


We are mindful that juveniles commit some horrific crimes. But should a 15-year-old who commits a particularly heinous murder which warrants a life sentence have to spend the rest of his natural life (close to 60 years by life expectancy tables) while a 45-year-old murderer will spend just 30 years on a life sentence before he dies?

As a society, we must find a better way to deal with juvenile offenders, even those violent ones charged as adults. A life sentence with parole eligibility is not that much different than a LWOP sentence. The juvenile lifer who grows up to be an adult in prison will always be at the mercy of discretion—should he or should he not be free.


Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to hail the Supreme Court’s decision in the Terrance Graham case as a “victory.” He could still spend the rest of his life in an adult Florida prison—and he did not kill anyone. His future, in all likelihood, will now rest in the hands of a Florida parole board which, after as much twenty or  thirty years, could still have the same view of him as the judge who sentenced him to life. The State of Florida no doubt has an inherent need and right to protect itself from the kind of repetitive criminal behavior Terrance Graham engaged in, but a life sentence, with or without parole, is not a decent, rational response to such behavior.


But as we said earlier in this piece: you be the judge. You weigh all the factors and decide if a life sentence with parole is an appropriate penalty for a juvenile who commits a non-homicide offense. And while you decide that difficult issue, you may also want to consider whether a life sentence without parole is appropriate for a juvenile who commits a homicide. The Supreme Court said it is okay. But before you fall in line with that point of view, we ask only that you remember in your decision-making process that a life sentence, under any circumstances, for a juvenile is a unilateral decision by society to forever throw away that kid.


By: Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair