WASHINGTON — Florida's tough prison sentences for juveniles came under scrutiny at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, with justices appearing divided about whether locking up teenagers for life constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Attorneys for two Floridians who are serving life in prison with no opportunity for parole told the justices that such sentences are unjust to teenagers, who often outgrow their felonious ways.
But the state argued that banning such sentences for nonlethal crimes would undermine the state Legislature's efforts to cut down on serious violent crimes by juveniles.
The court's conservative bloc — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — seemed reluctant to embrace an outright ban on such sentences, suggesting instead that judges factor age into account during sentencing.
"Your client — his crime is horrendously violent," Roberts said to Bryan Stevenson, an attorney for Joe Sullivan, who was convicted of raping an elderly woman when he was 13. "At the same time he is much younger than in the typical case. And it seems to me that requiring … consideration of his age avoids all these line-drawing problems."
But Bryan Gowdy, an attorney for Terrance Graham, who was convicted of armed robberies when he was 16 and 17, argued that a ban on life sentences without parole would be more effective than a case-by-case review, because, "We can't tell which adolescents are going to change and which aren't."
Gowdy and Stevenson noted that in 2005, the court banned states from imposing the death penalty on those who were younger than 18 when they committed a crime, because young offenders are more easily swayed and lack the judgment of adults. Life without parole is comparable to a death sentence, Stevenson said.
The author of the 2005 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy, is considered a swing vote on the court, but he gave few clues as to his thinking. He asked at one point, "Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?"
Florida leads the nation in the number of inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed while they were teenagers.
Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar argued that enacting a ban would go against states like Florida that have eliminated parole and have chosen to enact tough laws against violent juvenile offenses. He told the court that 99 of 100 juvenile offenders do not end up in adult court and that judges have the discretion to sentence for age.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted that the judge in the Graham case ''surprised everyone in the courtroom'' with a life-without-parole sentence, going "far beyond'' the 30 years prosecutors had recommended.
Makar said there are no Florida inmates sentenced to life for a crime committed before age 13. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether under state law "a 5-year-old could be put away for life."
"We would hope that the system would not allow that to occur," Makar said.
Still, several justices appeared unconvinced that such prison terms aren't inappropriate for extremely violent crimes that fall short of murder.