SCOTUS: Juvenile Sentencing Law Struck DownMay 17, 2010 - 10:36 AM | by: Lee Ross
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that juvenile criminals cannot be sentenced to life in prison with no chance at parole for crimes other than homicide because it violates their Eighth Amendment right against Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy has the opinion of the Court. In it he writes that “The inadequacy of penological theory to justify life without parole sentences for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, the limited culpability of such offenders, and the severity of these sentences all lead the Court to conclude that the sentencing practice at issue is cruel and unusual.”
Florida is the state with the most juvenile offenders (77) with life/no parole sentences and that is where this case comes from.
Kennedy says a categorical rule making such a sentence unconstitutional is necessary because otherwise “a court or jury will erroneously conclude that a particular juvenile is sufficiently culpable to deserve life without parole for a nonhomicide. It also gives the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform.”
The Court opinion also makes note of the fact the United States is the only country in the world that had allowed such a sentence. “While the judgments of other nations and the international community are not dispositive as to the meaning of the Eighth Amendment, the Court has looked abroad to support its independent conclusion that a particular punishment is cruel and unusual.”
Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito are in dissent. Chief Justice John Roberts agreed that the juvenile sentenced in this case, Terrance Graham, was excessive. He disagrees with the ruling that says all life without parole sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual.
Justice Thomas writes that “Although the text of the Constitution is silent regarding the permissibility of this sentencing practice, and although it would not have offended the standards that prevailed at the founding, the Court insists that the standards of American society have evolved such that the Constitution now requires its prohibition. The news of this evolution will, I think, come as a surprise to the American people.”
Case: Graham v. Florida
Date: Monday, November 9th 2009
Issue: Whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole for committing a non-homicide (armed burglary).
Background: This case is a step removed from the high court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons that a death sentence for someone younger than 18 years old is cruel and unusual as defined by the Eighth Amendment. Florida is like most states that allow life without parole sentences for juveniles even when the underlying crime did not result in someone’s death. But Florida is unique in that it appears to be home to the vast majority of prisoners who fit this category.
Terrance Graham was 16-years-old when he pled guilty to armed burglary. He was eventually released from jail and on probation when he busted into a man’s home and robbed him at gunpoint. A judge concluded that Graham violated his probation, wasted his second chance at freedom and was a significant threat to society. The judge sentenced Graham to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Graham’s lawyers argue the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Roper is the same that should extend to their client. Namely that like the mentally retarded, juveniles are “categorically less culpable than the average criminal” and that when compared to adults juveniles “cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders” when it comes to imposing the harshest of sentences.
Florida argues the severity of Graham’s sentence was “not grossly disproportionate to [the] violent crimes against [his] vulnerable victims.” The state further argues that Graham’s crime was so severe that even he didn’t challenge his treatment as an adult offender. Florida also dismisses attempts to extend Roper’s prohibition to life sentences saying that doing so is “compelled neither by legal logic nor by societal norms.”
There is a significant following in this case from varying interest groups who’ve submitted briefs supporting both sides. Perhaps the most interesting brief is from seven now successful men (including actor Charles Dutton and former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson) who were lawbreaking teenagers and are “living, breathing testaments to the resiliency, adaptability, and rehabilitative potential of juvenile offenders.”