Supreme Court strikes down life sentences for juveniles facing non-homicide charges

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday held [opinion, PDF] in Graham v. Florida [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the Eighth Amendment [text] ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the juvenile's commission of a non-homicide offense. The First District Court of Appeal of Florida [official website] upheld the life sentence of Terrance Graham for a non-homicide offense committed when he was 17, concluding that Graham's sentence was not "grossly disproportionate" to his crimes. The district court interpreted Supreme Court prison sentencing precedent to prohibit a per se ban on juvenile life sentences, and ruled instead that each case must be judged on its own facts. Justice Anthony Kennedy, delivering the opinion of the court, reversed and remanded the district court opinion, holding that life sentences without parole wrongly deprive juveniles of the opportunity to become rehabilitated and rejoin society:

Terrance Graham's sentence guarantees he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release, no matter what he might do to demonstrate that the bad acts he committed as a teenager are not representative of his true character, even if he spends the next half century attempting to atone for his crimes and learn from his mistakes. The State has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment does not permit. ... A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia and in part by Justice Samuel Alito. Alito also dissented in an opinion for himself. Justice John Paul Stevens concurred, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, even though these three Justices also joined the Kennedy majority opinion.

The court also handed down a per curiam decision on non-release sentences for juveniles in Sullivan v. Graham [opinion, PDF], dismissing the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted. It is uncertain whether defendant Joe Harris Sullivan, who was 13 when he committed his crime, will benefit from the ruling in the Graham case because Florida courts had turned aside Sullivan's Eighth Amendment challenge for procedural reasons. The Florida courts will now determine whether Sullivan can make a new challenge based on the Supreme Court's decision.

 

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