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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Says Life Sentence for Juveniles Not Charged with Murder Is Unconstitutional

Posted May 17, 2010 9:21 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a sentence of life in prison without parole is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles who have not been charged with murder.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Graham v. Florida. The court ruled for Terrance Jamar Graham, who had received a life sentence without parole for participating in an armed robbery at the age of 17 when he was on probation.

Five justices agreed that life without parole for juveniles who commit crimes other than murder is unconstitutional in all cases. "Categorical rules tend to be imperfect, but one is necessary here," Kennedy said. A sixth—Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.—said a life sentence is unconstitutional as applied to Graham.

"Terrance Graham’s sentence guarantees he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release," Kennedy wrote, "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 nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment does not permit."

Kennedy noted a “global consensus” against such sentences. He cited a study finding that 11 nations authorize life without parole for juvenile offenders not convicted of murder, and only two nations—the United States and Israel—ever impose the punishment in practice. Kennedy says the observation supports the conclusion of unconstitutionality, even though it “does not control our decision.”

ABA President Carolyn Lamm applauded the court's ruling, saying that the decision "recognizes evolving standards of decency, acknowledges the impossibility of knowing whether individual juveniles have the potential to reform, and expands our nation’s options for dealing with juveniles convicted of serious crime."

Roberts joined in the result, writing in a concurrence that he agreed the sentence was unconstitutional based on the particulars of Graham’s case and precedents requiring proportionality of sentences. But he disagreed with a sweeping new rule that a sentence of life with parole is unconstitutional in juvenile cases not involving murder. “I see no need to invent a new constitutional rule of dubious provenance," he wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia and joined in part by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Thomas said the court’s majority opinion is based on its conclusion that that standards of American society have evolved to such an extent that a life sentence that would have passed muster at the founding of the nation is now unconstitutional. “The news of this evolution will, I think, come as a surprise to the American people,” Thomas says.

Alito also rejects a categorical rule, but his dissent says he would not reach the question that Roberts considered: whether Graham's sentence was unconstitutional based on proportionality principles applied to his case. That question was not properly before the court, Alito said.

The court dismissed as improvidently granted a companion case involving a 13-year-old boy who was convicted of raping an elderly woman and sentenced to life, according to SCOTUSblog.

Additional coverage:

Associated Press: “High court rules out life sentences for juveniles”

Bloomberg: “High Court Limits Youth Life-Without-Parole Sentences”

SCOTUSblog: “Today’s orders and opinions”

Previous coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Roberts Suggests Middle Ground on Life Sentences for Juveniles"

ABA Journal: "Adult Time for Adult Crimes"

ABAJournal.com: "High Court to Rule on ‘Freakishly Rare’ Life Sentence for 13-Year-Old"

Last updated at 2:50 p.m. to add Carolyn Lamm's statement.

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