Posted November 16, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences for Non-Homicide Unconstitutional

"Graham v. Florida"

On May 17, 2010, the Supreme Court decided in Graham v. Florida that the Eighth amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits juveniles from being sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes. In 2003 the petitioner in the case, Terrance Jamar Graham entered into a plea agreement under which he received probation for committing armed burglary with assault and battery. These crimes carried a maximum penalty of life in prison without parole. In 2004 Graham was arrested for committing additional crimes and subsequently received the maximum penalty of life in prison without parole for violating the terms of his 2003 probation.

The Court determined that life in prison without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders is “cruel and unusual” because there is insufficient research to justify this type of punishment for this class of offender, many juveniles are insufficiently culpable to deserve such punishment, and the punishment itself is too severe for juveniles who commit crimes that aren’t murder. This ruling does not require states to promise freedom for juveniles who commit a non-homicide crime, but rather requires that states give juveniles a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that they are worthy of release. The Court left it to states to decide how to determine if a juvenile should be granted parole. The ruling builds on the reasoning the Court applied in Roper v. Simmons in 2005, which struck down the death penalty for juveniles. Roper cited recent studies on adolescent brain development demonstrating juvenile and adults are different and that juveniles lack the requisite culpability for their crimes committed under the age of 18. 

Court Reasoning

Currently, six jurisdictions do not allow life without parole for juveniles regardless of the crime and seven jurisdictions allow life without parole for juveniles committing homicide. Thirty- seven states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government all allow life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders. Florida argued that based these statistics there is no national consensus concerning this punishment for juveniles. The Court explained that of the thirty-seven states who statutorily allow life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders “only 12 jurisdictions nationwide in fact impose life without parole sentences”.

In citing Roper, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that juveniles have less culpability and as a result are “less deserving of the most severe punishments”. This makes it difficult to determine if a juvenile’s actions are the result of “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption”. "If the [state] imposes the sentence of life, it must provide [the offender] with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.” The Court went on to state that life without parole for juveniles is especially harsh because it removes all hope. It makes it so “that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial”. When compared with the reality that juveniles are more likely to change than are adults, juveniles who have demonstrated substantial improvement should be given the opportunity for parole. 

Lastly, the Court pointed out that there is no penological justification for this sentencing practice, which by its nature makes it disproportional to the crime. The Court determined that life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders, accomplishes none of the traditional goals of penal sanctions – retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. If rehabilitation for juveniles is to be the goal, it  is not accomplished with this sentencing practice. Many of the vocational and self improvement resources are denied life without parole offenders.     

State Impact

This ruling bans the sentence of life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders. The states are left to determine how they will provide juveniles with a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation. If a juvenile offenders turns out to be irredeemable the state is able to indefinitely detain them in prison. This ruling only forbids “states from making this judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society”.

This 50 state chart details these juvenile life without parole statutes in the states. Click here to listen to a podcast discussing the issue of juveniles and life without parole.