Court Bars Life Without Parole for Juveniles in Non-Homicides

By Mark Walsh — May 17, 2010 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that a sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile offender in a non-homicide case violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The court ruled 6-3 in favor of Terrance Jamar Graham, a Florida man, now 23, who was sentenced to life without parole for a series of robberies he committed at ages 16 and 17, although only five justices backed the broader Eighth Amendment ruling.

“Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in Graham v. Florida (Case No. 08-7412). “A young person who knows that he or she has no chance to leave prison before life’s end has little incentive to become a responsible individual.”

The decision continues the logic of a 2005 ruling, in Roper v. Simmons, that prohibited the death penalty for offenders who committed their crimes before age 18. In Roper, the court ruled 5 to 4, with Justice Kennedy writing for the majority, that both a national consensus and research on the adolescent brain make it “misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult.”

Justice Kennedy said today in Graham that “no recent data provide reason to reconsider the court’sobservations in Roper about the nature of juveniles. ... Developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds. ... Juveniles are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of irretrievably depraved character than are the actions of adults.”

Kennedy also noted that it is the policy of some prisons to “withhold counseling, education, and rehabilitation programs for those who are ineligible for parole consideration,” which he said in the case of juvenile offenders in that category leads to the “perverse consequence” that the offender’s lack of maturity is reinforced by his prison term.

Similar points were made in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on Graham’s side by a group of educators.

Kennedy’s opinion was signed by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concurred in the outcome, but said he would not adopt the broad, categorical rule of the majority.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said the majority “insists that the standards of American society have evolved such that the Constitution now requires” the prohibition it adopted today.

“The news of this evolution will, I think, come as a surprise to the American people,” Justice Thomas said. “Congress, the District of Columbia, and 37 States allow judges and juries to consider this sentencing practice in juvenile nonhomicide cases, and those judges and juries have decided to use it in the very worst cases they have encountered.”

The court today unanimously dismissed the appeal in a companion case that had raised the same issue, Sullivan v. Florida (No. 09-7621). The court gave no reason for the dismissal, but it was evident during oral arguments last November that the case of Joe Harris Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole at age 13 for the rape and beating of a 72-year-old woman, presented some procedural difficulties. It is possible that Sullivan will benefit from the ruling in Graham’s case.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.