Should they learn?

Joe Sullivan

Should he learn?

The Supreme Court heard two cases today concerning life sentence without parole for juveniles.  In Graham v. Florida, a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to life without parole for his participation in a home invasion robbery.  In Sullivan v. Florida, a 13-year-old boy was sentenced similarly for brutally beating and raping a 72-year-old woman.

Although both cases focused on whether locking up juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes for life is cruel and unusual under the 8th Amendment, the cases also have a surprising educational dimension: the appellants argue that such punishment is cruel and unusual partly because juvenile inmates serving life sentences without parole do not receive educational and vocational services in prison.

The rationale for the policy is that these inmates do not need training to help them transition back into society since they will never be released.  Justice Ginsburg appared to be troubled by this policy today when she questioned Graham’s attorney about educational opportunities for juveniles in prison.

Graham’s attorney answered that, in general, those serving life without parole have no access to educational services.  “That’s what makes the sentence so particularly cruel, to give up on a kid at that point in his life,” he said.

Does the fact that a 13-year-old boy will not receive any further education because he was put away for life trouble you?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  The answer reveals our deeply-held beliefs about what education is.  It depends on whether you think education is a means to an end — and therefore meaningless without a concrete purpose — or whether you believe that education is a basic right.

38 states currently have laws allowing juvenile offenders to receive a sentence life without parole, but is unclear how many states provide educational services to these inmates.  (Florida does not.) It’s difficult to glean, based on the rest of our educational policy, our attitude about prison education (for those who will never get out).

A recurrent theme in this blog is that our societal notion of what education is (as reflected in our laws, policies, and rhetoric) is often self-contradictory.  On the one hand, we make primary and secondary education universal, mandatory, and free, which makes the access to education — up to a certain grade level, at least — take on the shape and tenor of a basic right.

On the other hand, our courts have ruled that it is not unconstitutional to have wide disparities in the way localities finance the public schools, and that it is not a violation of equal protection principles when one public school spends $5000 per year on a child while another spends $15,000.  This approach makes education seem more like a non-essential commodity and not a basic right.

If education is a non-essential commodity, then there is nothing legally or morally troubling about performing exactly the type of cost-benefit analysis that many of our prisons are surely performing — and denying juvenile inmates access to educational services.  The prison has no duty to furnish inmates with this or other types of services that people can purchase when they are not in prison when there is little benefit to society.

But if education is a basic right and not just another commodity, then denying juvenile offenders these services is like denying food, water, shelter, or medication. Inmates would have a right to it regardless of whether receiving them would benefit the rest of society, or whether the benefits outweighs the costs.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that I belong to the latter camp.  I hold the strong belief that even if the youth offenders would never need the practical skills to survive in society, they should be not forced to be stuck at an understanding of the world at the age of 13 or 15 or 17.  They should not be denied the opportunity to broaden their perspective of the world and of themselves, and to experience their humanity on a deeper level.

Ultimately, the question may be moot if the Supreme Court finds that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional.  Whether education is a basic right that is denied in prison may be one consideration in such a decision, or it might not.  But where we stand in the meanwhile reveals our beliefs about what education is and what it is good for.

Related post: The rehabilitative powers of education: a matter of faith?