Juvenile Sentencing

Lesson Duration

Author: Lindey Kakert, University of Minnesota Law Student, Street Law Course 2010

This lesson plan will aid students in understanding the goals of the juvenile justice system and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment by participating in a Mock Appellate Argument.


This lesson plan will help students to:

  • Learn about what the constitutional requirements are under the Eighth (8th) Amendment.
  • Understand the goals of the juvenile justice system.
  • Learn about the process of conducting appellate court arguments.
  • Examine their own beliefs about the appropriateness of life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.

Grade level


Time to Complete

One- two 50 minute classes



1) Juvenile Sentencing PowerPoint

  • Introduce the topic of the day. Tell the students that this lesson is focused on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the goals of the juvenile justice system.
  • Begin the Juvenile Sentencing PowerPoint. Carefully explain each slide. Ask the class for their input about the issues presented in the PowerPoint:
  • What are the goals of the juvenile justice system? How do they differ from the goals of the adult criminal justice system?
  • Do you think that the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment may have different implications for adult offenders as compared to juvenile offenders?
  • Do you think that a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender who committed a non-homicide crime is constitutional under the Eighth Amendment?
  • Are there any reasons that state legislatures would want to preserve the ability to sentence a juvenile offender to a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime?
  • Read the facts and the question before the Supreme Court for the Sullivan v. Florida case from the PowerPoint.  Leave the slide about the facts of the case on the projector so that students can refer to it later during the Mock Appellate Argument Activity.

2) Sullivan v. Florida Mock Appellate Argument

In appellate arguments, lawyers present their sides of a case to a panel of judges who will consider the issues and write an opinion that states the decision of the court and explains the court’s reasoning. In presenting their case, the lawyers review the facts, discuss the issues, and present prior cases, laws, and public policies that support their position.  The judges may stop the lawyers at any time to ask questions. Each side has a limited amount of time in which to make their argument.  When the arguments are completed, the judges meet and discuss the issues and then issue an opinion.

The case for this lesson plan’s mock appellate argument, Sullivan v. Florida, is currently a pending case at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard the oral argument for the case on November 9, 2009.  This lesson plan will focus only on the facts involving Joe Sullivan. As a part of this case, the Supreme Court is also considering whether it was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole on Terrance Graham, a juvenile who committed a non-homicide crime. For purposes of simplicity and to narrow the scope of this lesson plan, the facts involving Terrance Graham will not be examined.


  • Divide the class into three groups. One group will represent the appellants in the case (Joe Sullivan), one group will represent the respondents in the case (the state of Florida), and the third group represents the judges.
  • Provide the group of lawyers representing Joe Sullivan with the “Sullivan v. Florida Mock Appellate Argument Handout for Appellant, Joe Sullivan”.  Also, provide the group of lawyers representing the state of Florida with the “Sullivan v. Florida Mock Appellate Argument Handout for Respondent, the State of Florida.” These handouts contain the facts of the case, the question before the Supreme Court, the applicable case, and arguments in support of their client.
  • Also, provide both groups of lawyers with the “Instructions for Appellate Argument Attorneys Handout” and the “Attorney Mock Appellate Argument Guide Handout.”

These handouts provide instructions for the attorneys as well as a script for the attorneys to follow when they present their arguments.

  • Ask the two lawyer groups to review the materials, to brainstorm arguments for their side, and find supporting cases, laws, or public policy to support their position. Then each group will develop and refine their arguments and select the person(s) who will present the argument.
  • Provide the group of judges with the “Instructions for Supreme Court Justices Handout.” Ask the judges group to review the law and the facts of the case and brainstorm questions they would like to ask during the oral argument. The facts of the case will be available on the PowerPoint slide so that the group of judges may refer to it while completing their handout.
  • Select one student to act as the court marshal and provide him or her with the “Supreme Court Call to Order Handout.”  This handout provides a script for the court marshal to read at the beginning of the oral argument.

Oral Argument

  • Begin court with the student court marshal calling the case using the “Supreme Court Call to Order Handout.”
  • Appellant presents his or her argument (5-10 minutes). He or she can reserve 2-3 minutes for rebuttal. See below.
  • Judges ask questions (2-3 minutes). They can also ask questions at any time during the lawyer’s presentation.
  • Respondent presents his or her argument (5-10 minutes).
  • Judges ask questions (2-3 minutes). They can also ask questions at any time during the lawyer’s presentation.
  • If the appellant has reserved time for rebuttal, he or she can respond to the respondent’s argument.

Supreme Court Conference

1.      At the conclusion of the oral argument, the judges meet so that the other members of the class can observe the conference discussion. Remind students that actual Supreme Court Conferences, during which they discuss the case, decide the outcome, and select the author of the majority opinion, are confidential.

2.      Tell students they will follow the procedures used by the U.S. Supreme Court in conference to discuss and decide a case:

  • As justices enter the conference room, they traditionally shake hands all around.
  • The chief justice announces a case for discussion. A free discussion of the case among various justices is held (ten minutes is suggested for this activity). Justices will want to try to persuade others and try to form coalitions in order to reach a majority opinion.
  • The chief justice then formally discusses the case first, followed by each of the other justices in order of seniority, each person giving his/her vote. Each justice should keep a tally of the other justices’ vote for or against and make note of key reasons for the opinions.
  • If the chief justice votes with the majority, he/she assigns one of the associate justices to write the majority opinion. If the chief justice is a dissenter, the most senior associate justice voting with the majority will make the assignment. The other justices in this group should help because all must sign the opinion. Dissenting justices may write one opinion together or each write his/her own. If they choose to write one opinion, all must sign it. Concurring justices traditionally each write a separate opinion.

3.      In the alternative, the judges may issue an oral opinion if a writing assignment is not part of the class work.  Judges should

  • Discuss strongest points made by appellant
  • Discuss strongest points made by respondent
  • Discuss weak points on both sides
  • Issue the opinion

4.      Discuss the court’s decision.

  • Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • What language of the Constitution and the amendments, other law, or previous cases was relied upon in the Court’s decision?
  • What were the key principles involved?
  • What was the significance of the court’s decision?
  • Did the decision change the meaning of the Constitution?
  • Was this the best way to solve the problem? What are alternative ways?
  • Can you predict problems arising out of the court’s decision?
  • What role did the other branches of government play? What role should they have played?
  • What, if anything, should happen next?

5.      Explain to the students that Sullivan v. Florida is an actual U.S. Supreme Court case. Tell them that the oral argument for the case was heard on November 9, 2009 and that a decision is currently pending.


The following sources were referred to in preparing this lesson plan:

Sullivan v. Florida, ScotusWiki. Available at http://www.scotuswiki.com/index.php?title=Sullivan_v._Florida

  • Note:  This lesson plan is based on the facts and arguments contained in the Supreme Court briefs submitted by both of the parties. The parties’ briefs and the oral argument transcript as well as amicus briefs can be found on the ScotusWiki website.

Sullivan v. Florida (08-7621). Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute. Available at http://topics.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/08-7412

Lauren Fine, Death Behind Bars: Examining Juvenile Life without Parole in Sullivan v.

Florida and Graham v. Florida, 5 Duke J. Const. L. & Pub. Pol’y Sidebar 24 (2009).

Death in Prison Sentences for 13- and 14-Year-Old Kids: Sullivan v. Florida/Graham v. Florida. Equal Justice Initiative. Available at http://eji.org/eji/childrenprison/deathinprison/sullivan.graham

When Kids Get Life. Frontline, PBS.  Available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/whenkidsgetlife/

[1] This lesson plan has been adapted from the Mock Appellate Argument from the Street Law course’s Strategies for Civics/Law-Related Education Handout.