The U.S. Supreme Court has banned life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders. In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___ (2010), the high court held that Terrance Graham, who was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile for a burglary and robbery, is entitled to some opportunity to have his sentence reviewed for the purpose of release. In doing so the Court held that “the Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.”
Graham appears to be another in a line of cases that have restricted the use of the death penalty and the imposition of punishment with regard to juveniles.
In Graham, the court suggested that there are two methods to review punishment for purposes of determining a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The proportionality approach which looks for unconstitutionally excessive punishment for a particular crime. The second approach focuses on a category of offenders. Prior to Graham the categorical approach had only been applied to the death penalty.
The categorical approach had been recently used to ban the death penalty for nonhomicide offenses, Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. ___ (2008); the execution of the mentally retarded, Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002); and the execution of juveniles, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
The analysis for the categorical approach begins with “indicia of national consensus.” The Court acknowledged, but rejected, Florida’s suggestion that there was no national consensus against juvenile life without parole because only 6 states specifically ban life in prison for juveniles. The Court held that “there are measures of consensus other than legislation.”
It is interesting that the Court would downplay legislation when in fact the Court relied on legislative action in both Roper and Atkins when the Court noted that 35 states had abolished the death penalty for the mentally retarded and juveniles.
The Graham Court relied on the fact that only 129 juveniles were serving life sentences for nonhomicide offenses nationwide. Seventy-seven were in Florida and the remaining 52 were spread across only 10 states. All in all 12 jurisdictions were imposing life in prison for nonhomicide committing juveniles.
Those findings were used by the court to demonstrate a national consensus. The Court specifically found, “The comparison suggests that in proportion to the opportunities for its imposition, life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes is as rare as other sentencing practices found to be cruel and unusual.” Namely those sentenced to death for crimes other than murder, Kennedy; and the execution of the mentally retarded, Atkins.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the 5 to 4 majority in Graham as well as the opinions in Roper and Kennedy. In Roper, Justice Kennedy wrote that juveniles have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility’”; they “are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.” In Graham, Justice Kennedy wrote, "No recent data provide reason to reconsider the Court’s observations in Roper about the nature of juveniles. As petitioner’s amici point out, developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”
When Justice Kennedy alluded to the Roper opinion it suggested that the Court will soon be reviewing other forms of punishment for juveniles. Although, Graham seems to leave open the possibility for the continued use of life in prison for juvenile killers, the use of the brain development data lends itself to arguing that life without parole is inappropriate for any juvenile offender regardless of offense.
Only 13 years before Roper the Supreme Court, in Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), upheld the execution of juveniles 16 years of age and older. In that short period of time the Court found “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,“ and outlawed the execution of juveniles. Currently there are over 2,500 juveniles serving life without parole. Forty-four states, the District of Columbia and federal government currently have statutes that permit the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison.
The Graham Court also dismissed any penological justification for juvenile life without parole. The Court methodically reviewed retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. None were enough to convince the Court to continue with juvenile life without parole for nonhomicide offenses.
Finally the court examined the sentencing practices of other nations. The Court found a worldwide consensus against the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison.
In the end, the Court did not find that states must provide parole for juveniles. The Court even acknowledged that some juveniles may be “irredeemable” and therefore should spend the rest of their life in prison. The Court concluded, “A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime. What the State must do, however, is give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
Another interesting aspect of this decision is the concurring opinion of Chief Justice John G. Roberts. While Chief Justice Roberts would not extend the ruling to all young offenders who are serving life for nonhomicide offenses, he did find that Graham's punishment was not proportional to the offense.
More importantly, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that juveniles are generally less culpable than adult offenders as established by Roper. Chief Justice Roberts' opinion was a departure from the conservative block of the Court and it may be a signal that the Chief Justice is willing to compromise on Eighth Amendment issues.
To read full opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-7412.pdf