By a 5-4 vote, the United States Supreme Court ruled today that a state may not sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes. The opinion was written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, Breyer and Sotomayor. Chief Justice John Roberts agreed that Graham should not have received life without parole, but did not join the opinion because its scope reached beyond the specific defendant. As a result, some have reported this as a 6-3 decision. Justices Thomas, Scalia and Alito dissented.
At the age of 16, Terrance Graham was involved in the burglary of a barbecue restaurant with two other defendants. A co-defendant bludgeoned the restaurant manager during the commission of the crime, causing injury but not death. Graham was charged as an adult which is within the discretion of the prosecutor in Florida. Graham entered into a plea agreement placing him on three years probation. During probation he was involved in a second crime, a home invasion. As a result, the plea agreement was converted to a conviction and set for sentencing.
At sentencing, the prosecutor recommended sentences of 30 years and 15 years respectively on the two charges. Defense counsel sought a 5 year sentence, and the presentence report prepared for the court recommended a 4 year sentence. The trial court instead sentenced Graham to life in prison. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, the sentence allowed no possibility of release for Graham other than pardon or commutation. Florida had 77 other lifers whose non-homicide crimes had been committed as juveniles. Ten other states added another 50 juvenile non-homicide offenders who were serving life without parole.
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads,
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.”
In assessing the cruel and unusual provision, the Supreme Court first looked to the question of unusualness and found that life without parole was unusual as a sentence for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles. The case lets stand sentences of life without parole for homicides committed while a juvenile.
The Court took note of the principle that punishment for crimes should be graduated and proportional. It then looked at categorical prohibitions against certain types of sentences for particular defendants. In Roper v. Simmons, the Court had ruled that juveniles committing homicides could not receive the death penalty. The maximum sentence for a homicide by a juvenile would then be life without parole. As a result, Graham’s sentence would place him in the same category of punishment as if he had committed a murder at age 16.
The Court considered the absence of such sentences in other countries. This approach has been used before in Eighth Amendment cases, but has been much criticized, particularly by strict constructionists.
The Court declined to limit its holding to Graham’s particular situation and issued a broader ruling finding such sentences to be unconstitutional generally. In the process, it expanded the reach of the Eighth Amendment by creating a new categorical sentencing prohibition which forbids the sentence of life without parole for non-homicide offenses committed by a juvenile. No exceptions were made to the new categorical prohibition.
Thanks to Joe Windish for his previous report at TMV. Please see his article for key quotes from the Court’s opinion.
Cross posted at Elijah’s Sweete Spot.
Contributor, aka tidbits. Retired attorney in complex litigation, death penalty defense and constitutional law. Former Nat’l Board Chair: Alzheimer’s Association. Served on multiple political campaigns, including two for U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR). Contributing author to three legal books and multiple legal publications.