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Imprisoning teenagers for life

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that sentences for non-homicide crimes committed under the age of 18 amount to cruel and unusual punishment and can no longer be imposed.

Joe Sullivan has been in prison for the last 21 years. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole when he was just 13 years old for a rape that to this day he maintains he didn’t commit. Last week’s ruling means that he can now challenge his sentence.

“I was only kid, a child. My mind wasn’t even fully developed life yet,” he said.

Adolescent brain development had been at the heart of the debate over whether juveniles should be given life without parole.

“I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to say that a child, a teenager, is beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond rehabilitation,” said Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer that took Sullivan’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “They change too much for us to make that prediction.”

The Court declined to rule on Sullivan’s case directly but agreed with the reasoning in its decision this week.

“Compared to adults, adolescents still have a relatively immature system to control their impulses and to think ahead,” said Laurence Steinberg, a professor at Temple University and one of the leading experts on adolescent behavior and brain biology. “It’s premature to make a conclusion about someone on the basis of what he did when he was 13 years old.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling means that the 129 juvenile offenders imprisoned for life without parole deserve “some meaningful opportunity for release.” Most need effective representation for re-sentencing hearings — which is certain to be an expensive, time-consuming process.

But Bryan Stevenson says it’s worth it and continues to work on his case.

“I’m thrilled because kids like Joe Sullivan will now have the chance to have their sentences reduced,” he said.

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  • Joan Cash

    I love this show! Thought I would miss Bill Moyers but the venue is even better, and seems less driven by liberal agendas. I’m trying to figure out how you’re doing this — staying very current with weekly topics while having pieces on hand prepared to show during the hour. Are you all working 24 hours a day? Whatever your secret (excellent planning, I guess) it’s really working.

    Good for John Meacham – I respect his reporter’s credo as well as his natural intellect. I’m telling my friends to catch the show, by TIVO or as it airs. Keep it up, and tell your sponsors their support is appreciated.

  • Toni

    I agree that in same cases, life in prision for teenagers, would be too extreme. It definitely needs to review case by case. In particular with menthal ill kids. However, teenagers nowadays are more influenced by violence and crime than in the old days. Otherwise, how do you explain “the Virgina Tech Massacre” and such. Just lately in CA a teenager daughter and her boyfriend killed her mom. I do not want to be so soft with these kind of crime whether they are teenagers or not.

  • Anthony

    Excellent segment! This was the first time I ever watched “Need to Know,” and based on this story, I’m impressed.

  • Annie

    really interesting segment about joe sullivan – i want to know more!!

  • Adam

    this is such an important issue, I’m so glad to see you covering this topic. keep up the good work

  • Cromwellbeverly

    only if you’re black in american