WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Supreme Court will decide whether it is cruel and unusual punishment for young criminal offenders to be sentenced to life in prison with parole.

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Joe Sullivan, now 33, was convicted of burglary and rape when he was 13. He is serving life without parole.

The justices agreed without comment Monday to accept appeals from two Florida inmates convicted as teenagers of criminal offenses. Oral arguments will be heard in the fall.

One of the men is Joe Sullivan, 33, serving a life term without the possibility of parole in a Florida prison while confined to a wheelchair. He was sentenced for a rape committed when he was 13.

The man’s lawyers say he is one of only two people his age in the world who was tried as an adult and sentenced to “die in prison” for a non-homicide.

The justices also accepted a case dealing with Terrance Graham, who was 17 when he took part in a violent home-invasion robbery while on parole for another felony.

Outside a death-penalty context, the high court has offered little recent guidance on how to treat the youngest of underage criminal defendants. The appellate record for rapists younger than 15 is almost nonexistent, legal experts say.

Child legal advocates say many states lack adequate resources to handle young inmates given long sentences, including a lack of proper jailhouse counseling. Few studies have been conducted on the psychological effects of young defendants facing life in prison at such a young age, said the Equal Justice Institute, which is representing Sullivan’s high court case.

“We have created a forgotten population with a lot of needs,” said Bryan Stevenson, Sullivan’s lawyer.

The crime happened in 1989, when, Sullivan admitted, he and two friends ransacked a home on Seabrook Street in West Pensacola. But he denied the prosecutor’s claim that he returned with a knife and sexually assaulted the 72-year-old female homeowner. An older co-defendant claimed that Sullivan was the rapist.

After a daylong trial, Escambia County Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life without parole.

“I am going to try to send him away for as long as I can. He is beyond help,” the judge said. “The juvenile system has been utterly incapable of doing anything with Mr. Sullivan.”

Sullivan, who had a lengthy juvenile record, continues to deny that he committed the attack.

Original link: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/05/04/teen.lifers.supreme.court/