Twelve years old: Life without parole

We examine the justification for life sentencing for children who commit dangerous crimes

By Tony Crespi, EdD

Author’s Preface: In November 2009 the Supreme Court docket included oral arguments on two (non-homicide) cases decreed 20 years ago, involving two males who, then, at the ages of 13 and 17, were committed to life without parole [LWOP]. The outcomes of these cases involving Joseph Sullivan, then 13, and Terrance Graham, then 17, may determine if such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment for a child.  The implications of these cases may profoundly alter legal sentences for children who commit dangerous crimes.

In the landscape of criminal sentencing for minors who commit the most serious of offenses, society struggles with the appropriate severity of court rulings. In truth, how should society handle children who commit such violent crimes as murder? In 2008 the United States Supreme Court held that the death penalty for juvenile offenders constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Noting this premise of cruel and unusual punishment, the courts noted such landmark cases as Thompson v. Oklahoma (1998, 487 U.S. 815) in indicating that the age of a minor is itself a relevant mitigating factor and that the death penalty is not appropriate for children. In contrast, though, while the death penalty is no longer appropriate for youth, life sentencing without parole (LWOP) continues to be legally leveled against youth in more cases than often realized. In 2003, for instance, in the State of Florida, then 12 year old Lionel Tate was sentenced to LWOP for murder (Tate v. State, 2003, 864 So. 2d 44; Florida App. 4 Dist.). Tragically, this is not a new sentence for children. In 1989, for example, in the State of Washington 13 year old Ray Massey was also sentenced to LWOP for a murder committed during a robbery.

Can we predict how today’s violent children will react tomorrow? No! Is there justification for life sentencing for children in the ways we commit adults? No! In reality, while schools, communities, and school psychologists struggle with serious delinquent behaviors (as well as criminal behavior which can entail criminal sentencing), few professionals actually understand the outcomes of legal sentences for children nor the thinking of the nation’s courts in handling these youth.

Unknown to many school psychologists who may not follow legal sentencing and court decisions impacting children, youth can face the harshest of punishments. In fact, LWOP has impacted thousands of youth. While the United States Supreme Court in 2005 expressed concern about the sentencing of youth (i.e. Roper v Simmons, 2005, 543 U.S. 551, 567), the serious nature of such offenses as murder continues to lead to sentences of LWOP. This article is intended to provide readers with a glimpse into the sentencing of children, while helping to provide a thoughtful discussion on the thinking behind recent court decisions impacting youth. Given that each of the cases cited involved children who once attended schools, the implications can be profound.


The very youthful nature of children has led the courts to be concerned with legal sentencing for children. Indeed, in Roper v. Simmons, 2005, 543 U.S. 551, 567 the Court accepted the assumption that juveniles are less culpable than adults and cannot be classified as the worst offenders. Understand, the court has felt that a 15 year old - more than a 50 year old - can be expected to undergo personality changes as time passes. This growth potential, though, is counter to a life sentence, and seems to be a reasonable factor to take into consideration. Thus, the potential to develop into a non-violent and possibly productive citizen remains an unattainable possibility for a youth sentenced to LWOP.

Is the personality of a 14 year old completely formed if he commits a violent crime at this age? Do children or adolescents fully understand the consequences of their actions? Do the irresponsible behaviors of children constitute a life-long pattern? Not always. In truth, the reckless behavior of youth may, we hope, subside with development. In reality, not all irresponsible behaviors lead to a life-long pattern. In Roper v. Simmons the Court concluded that juveniles are less likely than adults to weigh the possibility of a harsh sentence, and noted that the rehabilitative possibility is greater with youth.

Indeed, how many children receive life sentences? Amnesty International has estimated 2,225 inmates are serving life sentences for crimes committed when under the age of 18. Moreover, at least 22 states impose LWOP sentences for 15 year old offenders. Sixteen states impose LWOP as mandatory minimum or maximum for enumerated crimes.

Of particular interest for those interested in the disposition of cases with children, it is notable that states vary in the use and legislation of LWOP. In Colorado, for example, the court noted that LWOP is a loss to society, as children are developmentally different from adults (2006, Colorado Legis. Serv. Ch 228, H.B. 06-1315). In Montana, in contrast, if the crime committed was done with a youth under age 18 statutory mandatory minimums do not apply. Do such dramatic differences between and among states make sense? Is it time to establish a position which takes into account the changing maturity and reasoning of children as they age? As the Supreme Court hears such cases, will a national standard may be established? Indeed, current cases may profoundly alter legal sentencing for children. At the same time, what thinking led to abolishing the death penalty for children?

Considerations and Conclusions

In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments do not support the execution of offenders under the age of 18. Noting important developmental differences between youth and adults, the Court highlighted the cognitive and emotional immaturity of youth and ruled against such a sentence for children. At the same time, while the death penalty no longer became applicable for youth, sentences of LWOP remained part of the justice system. For those with interests in the rehabilitation of children, such decisions are noteworthy. After all, the children who have received a sentence of LWOP attended schools at some point. Further, school psychologists understand that youth do not possess the sophisticated decision making and problem solving abilities of adults and such cognitive qualities can change over time. The Roper v. Simmons case discussed the differences in understanding consequences between adolescents and adults, with adolescents demonstrating a weaker understanding of future consequences than adults. In fact, the court noted that adolescent cognitive development is not fully developed relative to reasoning as well as impulse control.

Still, the use of life sentences for children suggests that society and the legal system views certain behaviors in youth as intractable. Do certain crimes indicate that these behaviors reflect adult thinking? Does youthful immaturity and recklessness become solidified by virtue of serious behavioral misdeeds? Indeed, the questions are complex. For school psychologists who may intersect with these children prior to committing such acts as murder the implications are key. Can early intervention change a life trajectory? Sometimes! Indeed, a small population of school psychologists working outside the schools but working directly with this population within correctional programs, within forensic psychiatric units, and within alternative juvenile justices programs are in a critical position from which to acquire key material - research - from which to expand our knowledge and understanding. Yet, both this population of practitioners and this population of children remain largely outside of the “radar” of educators and school psychologists.

As we process these issues school psychologists might contemplate a series of questions which could stimulate important research and further our understanding on children and the outcomes of children who commit serious crimes:

  1. What behaviors did children committed to LWOP display in school?

  2. What psychological interventions were used in the past?

  3. How did the schools react to a former student committed to LWOP?

  4. Do schools mediate punishments taking into account age and development?

  5. Do schools render punishments with a watchful understanding of child development?

The problem of handling of severely dangerous youth and dangerous behaviors committed by youth is not new. Schools and school psychologists have struggled with such issues for years. At the same time, this article has attempted to provide insights into how the legal system is handling such issues. Most striking may be that LWOP does not occur in every state. In fact, it varies across states, which itself suggests a disturbing lack of consensus on how society feels about this problem. At this point in time, as we await a critical ruling from the United States Supreme Court on the cases of Joseph Sullivan and Terrance Graham , it may be that criminal sentences for crimes committed by youth may change. Both these cases, Florida cases, involved burglaries, with one also including a sexual assault. With neither case involving murder, were these life sentences disproportionate to such youthful crimes? What has happened to these men? Sullivan is now 33 and in a wheelchair. Graham, who had been described as possessing an escalating pattern of behavior, has spent the past 20 years in confinement. In both cases there were victims: No one died. No one knows what might have happened with psychological interventions.

Are children different than adults? Yes. Is childhood behavior a definite predictor of adult behavior? No. What is the message society is conveying about children when youth are sentenced for LWOP? Most importantly, how many such lives might have been directed on a new trajectory with early intervention? This unique ruling by the United States Supreme Court may suggest important thinking about society’s view on children, and their dangerous behavior (change repeated word). In truth, we possess too little research on this population. Simply put, too many answers are unknown. We, as school psychologists, though, can begin to change this through the careful construction of long-term followup research on troubled youth. In the meantime, these cases can stimulate our thinking as these rulings may have implications for all our lives.