During the astounding rise in crime in the late 1980s and 1990s, many states took measures to punish offenders, and to punish them severely. Some passed the death penalty, others added long sentences. Other states instituted the sentence of life without the possibilty of parole, even for crimes in which no one was killed, and even for juveniles. The latter is what is at issue now.
On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments from the lawyers of two men sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. They will claim that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids sentencing them to life in prison for crimes other than homicide.
According to The New York Times, there are a little more than a hundred people in the entire world serving life without parole for non-lethal crimes committed as juveniles. They are all in the U.S. -- 77 of them in Florida.
In his brief to the Supreme Court, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum explains the dilemma the state was in:
"By the 1990s, violent juvenile crime rates had reached unprecedented high levels throughout the nation. Florida’s problem was particularly dire, compromising the safety of residents, visitors and international tourists, and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry.”
Nine foreign tourists were killed in high-profile attacks over eleven months in 1992 and 1993, one by a 14-year-old. Florida wanted to assure people that i was safe to come to their state, so they passed the tough new sentencing laws. But some say they went too far.
“Back in the 1990s, there were dire predictions about teenage super-predators, particularly in Florida,” Judge Thomas K. Petersen, who spent a decade hearing cases in juvenile court, said. “Florida, probably more than other places because of that rash of crimes, overreacted."
Others, though, say the sentencing is appropriate. “Sometimes a 15-year-old has a tremendous appreciation for right and wrong,” said State Representative William D. Snyder. “I think it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to say that it was patently illegal or improper to send a youthful offender to life without parole. At a certain point, juveniles cross the line, and they have to be treated as adults and punished as adults.”
In his brief, McCollum wrote that juvenile crime fell 30 percent in the decade ended in 2004, attributing the drop to the state tough approach.
Florida is one of eight states with juvenile offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes, according to a report out of Florida State University. Louisiana has 17 such prisoners; California, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina have the rest.