Two cases in the Supreme Court could alter the fates of over 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers.
This article is the first in a two-part series about juveniles and harsh sentencing.
Sara Kruzan was 11 years old, a middle school student from Riverside, Calif., when she met a man -- he called himself GG -- who was almost three times her age. GG took her under his wing; he would buy her gifts, take her and her friends rollerskating. "He was like a father figure," she recalls.
Despite suffering severe bouts of depression as a child, until then, Kruzan was a good student, an "overachiever" in her words. But her mother was abusive and addicted to drugs; as for her father, she had only met him a couple of times. So, more and more, GG filled in.
"GG was there -- sometimes," she said. "He would talk to me and take me out and give me all these lavish gifts and do all these things for me …" Before long, he started talking to her about sex, giving her his expert advice on what men were really like and telling her that she didn't "need to give it up for free."
Unbeknownst to her, GG was grooming Kruzan to be a prostitute. When she was 13, he raped her. "He uses his manhood to hurt," Kruzan recalls, "Like, break you in. I guess."
Kruzan worked for GG as a prostitute for three years. The hours were 6 p.m. until 5:30 or 6 in the morning. She and "the other girls" would come back and hand over their earnings to him. "He was, like, married to all of us I guess," she says. " … Everything was his."
After years of prostitution and sexual abuse, when she was 16, Kruzan snapped: She killed GG, was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder. Despite attempts by her lawyer to have her sentenced as a juvenile, the judge described her crime as "well thought-out" and sentenced her to life without parole.
"My judge told me that I lacked moral scruples," she recalls, a term she did not know the meaning of.
But the meaning of her sentence was all too clear. Life without parole, she says, "means I'm gonna die here."
'These Children Were Literally Lost In Adult Prison'
A few years ago, Sara Kruzan's story grabbed the attention of California State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who introduced legislation to abolish the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for youth offenders. The bill was no get-out-of-jail pass; under his legislation, a juvenile who committed a felony before the age of 18 would serve a minimum of 25 years before being eligible to go before a parole board (also not a get-out-of-jail pass).
Yee is also a child psychologist. When it comes to judging the actions of teenagers versus those of adults, he argues, "the neuroscience is clear; brain maturation continues well through adolescence, and thus impulse control, planning and critical-thinking skills are still not yet fully developed."
Condemning teenagers to die in jail, then, means curtailing the lives of potentially productive members of society. "Children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults," Yee said. Anyway, didn't California's prison system rename itself the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation?
In politics, however, punitive almost always wins out -- particularly in California, where "three strikes" laws have led to a prison crisis unparalleled anywhere else in the country. Yee's bill met intense political resistance and eventually died.
This past February, he introduced a new, watered-down bill that, instead of eliminating life without parole for juveniles would provide a review of a youth offender's sentence after 10 years.
In 2005, Human Rights Watch published an unprecedented study, "The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States," which found "at least 2,225 people incarcerated in the United States who have been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes they committed as children." Today, the number is even higher: 2,574.
It's only recently that the plight of juveniles serving life in adult prisons came across the national radar. Alison Parker, deputy director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch told AlterNet, "these children were literally lost in adult prison. Nobody paid attention to the fact that they were under 18 at the time of their offense."
But this could soon change. Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a pair of cases -- Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida -- that will decide whether life sentences for juveniles violate the Constitution's ban on cruel-and-unusual punishment.
These cases follow the Court's landmark ruling in Roper v. Simmons four years ago, which struck down the death penalty for juvenile defendants on Eighth Amendment grounds. Echoing the opinion of Yee, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that juveniles have an "underdeveloped sense of responsibility" that leads to "impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions," as well as being "more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure."
Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, the lead attorney in Sulliivan, argues that sentencing children to life without parole makes no more sense than sentencing them to death. In court filings for Sullivan, he writes, "The essential feature of a death sentence or a life-without-parole sentence is that it imposes a terminal, unchangeable, once-and-for-all judgment upon the whole life of a human being and declares that human being forever unfit to be a part of civil society."
Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners, including juveniles. According to EJI, out of the prisoners serving juvenile life without parole, more than half are first-time offenders. At least 74 involve defendants who were 14 years old or younger when they committed their crime.
"Almost all of these kids currently lack legal representation, and in most of these cases the propriety and constitutionality of their extreme sentences has never been reviewed."
Among these 74 is Joe Sullivan, the defendant in Sullivan v. Florida. Sullivan, who is reportedly mentally disabled, was 13 years old in 1989 when he was accused of raping an elderly woman after a burglary carried out by an older group of teenagers. The older teenagers confessed to the burglary but pinned the rape on Sullivan, a charge he denied.
The older boys did time in juvenile prison and were then freed. Sullivan became the youngest prisoner to be sentenced to die in prison for a crime other than murder. "I am going to try to send him away for as long as I can," his trial judge said. "He is beyond help."
At 14, Sullivan was sent to an adult prison, where he was repeatedly sexually assaulted. Sullivan now is 33 years old. Stricken with multiple sclerosis, he is confined to a wheelchair.
Sullivan's case is emblematic of a number of problems when it comes to juveniles sentenced as adults, not the least of which is the phenomenon of youths either being coerced or getting caught up in criminal situations orchestrated by older teenagers or adults.
Among juvenile offenders, many have participated in violent crimes as a result of their relationship with a grown-up. Incredibly, this can mean getting a harsher sentence than the adult in question.
"There is this tendency to point the finger towards the younger co-defendant, sometimes because of the perception that the younger person will get a lesser sentence," says Alison Parker. "There's still this perception out there that kids will be treated differently, but the reality is that kids are treated like adults."
Another major factor is race. During Sullivan's trial, "the prosecutor and witnesses made repeated, unnecessary reference to the fact that Joe is African American and the victim (was) white," according to EJI. "One witness repeatedly said the perpetrator of the assault was a 'colored boy' or 'a dark colored boy.' "
It is not news that the American criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color. But when it comes to juvenile offenders, Alison Parker calls the disparities "absolutely shocking." On a national level, "African American youth are serving the sentence at a rate of about 10 times that of white youth," Parker told AlterNet. "In some states, the rate is even higher."
In both cases before the Supreme Court, the defendants were sentenced to life for crimes that fell short of murder, a phenomenon that is especially prevalent In Florida, where the number of prisoners who will die in jail for non-homicide crimes hovers at 77.
Terrance Jamar Graham, the defendant in Graham v. Florida, was 17 years old and on probation for a crime he committed when he was 16, when he took part in an armed burglary. His co-defendants got minor sentences. He was slapped with life without parole.
"Mr. Graham, as I look back on your case, yours is really candidly a sad situation," the judge told him. "The only thing that I can rationalize is that you decided that this is how you were going to lead your life and there is nothing that we can do for you."
This is classic "three strikes" logic, which, along with the conspiracy and felony murder statutes have led teens to be sentenced to life for crimes in which they played only a minor role.
Take Christine Lockhart, the first female juvenile to be sentenced to life without parole in Iowa. She was 17 years old and sitting in a car when her boyfriend killed someone during an armed robbery. Today, she has been in prison for more than half her life.
Lockhart, along with Sara Kruzan are a relative minority, two out of some 175 women serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. But their stories reveal how young people can get caught up in dangerous, harmful, and ultimately deadly, situations often simply by being with the wrong people at the wrong time.
"Sara's story is compelling," says Parker. "But it is really one that is shared across the country. There are many, many people with similar circumstances who are serving life sentences without any possibility of parole."
Kruzan, in fact, is one of the lucky ones. She now has attorneys who are working on appealing her sentence, pro bono. Most other prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles have no post-conviction representation at all.
Today, Kruzan is 32 years old and described as a "model inmate," despite any real lack of incentive. ("Who wants to excel in prison?" she says.) Asked what she would say if she had a chance to appear before a a parole board, she says that she believes she can now be of some value to society, perhaps even a "positive example."
Also, she says, "I've learned what moral scruples are."
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Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. http://twitter.com/LilianaSegura