Last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court began considering whethersentencing youth offenders who commit non-homicidal crimes to life in prison without parole is cruel or unusual punishment. Six months later, on May 17, 2010, the high court ruled 5-4 that incarcerating youth for life, with the exception of homicide, violates our Eighth Amendment rights to fair punishment.
The cases (Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida) involved two youths, Joe Harris Sullivan, one of only two 13-year-olds sentenced to life in prison without parole, and Floridian Terrance Graham, who was sentenced at age 17. Currently, Florida is the nation’s leader in youth life/no parole incarcerations with 77.
Gay youth in prison
LGBT youth represent as much as 13 percent of the total detained youth population and according toJust Detention International, 67 percent of all LGBT people report being assaulted while in prison, including incidents of violence, rape, verbal and sexual abuse by other inmates and facilities staff.
Equity Project, a collaboration between the Legal Services for Children, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Juvenile Defender Center, says that “a profound lack of acceptance of LGBT identity based on misconceptions about sexual orientation and gender identity” leads to LGBT youth abuses in prison.
Additional punishment for LGBT youth
Life-long prison sentences subject LGBT-youth to prolonged abuses. A Fall 2009 Equity Project report, Hidden Injustice: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in Juvenile Courts, states that bias, lack of family support and harassment at school “increases the likelihood of formal processing rather than diversion, detention, and punitive dispositions.”
Transgender youth face additional challenges within the juvenile system because they are often placed in sex-segregated facilities according to their birth sex, rather than their gender identity—increasing their vulnerability to sexual abuses.
No Chance of parole
The issue before the court was not one of whether youth should be detained for crimes committed, but to what extent young people should be punished for their crimes. LGBT youth are disproportionately affected by the juvenile penal system from the moment of arrest to the abuses endured after sentencing. A life spent in prison for LGBT youth extends far beyond retribution for crimes committed and that, as the Supreme Court ruled, is cruel and unusual punishment.