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U.S. Supreme Court

Roberts Suggests Middle Ground on Life Sentences for Juveniles

Posted Nov 10, 2009 8:21 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The problem of drawing lines became a focus at yesterday’s oral arguments on whether the Constitution bars a sentence of life without parole for juveniles who don’t commit murder.

A majority of justices appeared to agree that age should be taken into account when judges impose such a sentence, the New York Times reports. “But there was disagreement among the justices about where to draw various lines and, indeed, over whether line-drawing or case-by-case determination was the right approach.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested a middle ground. He said judges could be required to consider a defendant’s age in sentencing, and whether a sentence is disproportionate to others that are similar, according to the Times and stories in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the National Law Journal.

"Why doesn't that seem more sensible?" Roberts asked, according to the NLJ account. "It avoids all of the line-drawing."

Liberal justices suggested they would go further and rule it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a youth under the age of 18 who didn’t commit murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The two cases before the court involve youths who were 13 and 17 when they committed their crimes. The 13-year-old was convicted of raping an elderly woman, and the older youth was sentenced for violating probation by participating in a home invasion robbery, the ABA Journal reported in November.

The cases are Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida.

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