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U.S. Supreme Court Holds Eighth Amendment Prohibits Life Without Parole for Juveniles Not Convicted of Homicide

The Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause bars juveniles from receiving life without parole for nonhomicide crimes, the U.S. Supreme Court decided May 17, 2010.

Terrance Graham received probation for an attempted robbery committed at age 16. Six months after starting his probation, Graham got into trouble again, committing a series of armed home invasions. A Florida judge revoked Graham’s probation and imposed a life term of imprisonment.

Graham appealed the sentence arguing that it violated the Eighth Amendment. Denying relief, the First District Court of Appeal concluded that Graham’s sentence was not “grossly disproportionate” to his crimes and that Graham was unable to be rehabilitated. The Florida Supreme Court denied review, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the court adopted a bright-line rule barring life without parole for nonhomicide crimes committed by offenders under age 18.

Looking at actual sentencing practices across the country, the court found that it was “exceedingly rare” for juveniles not convicted of murder to receive life without parole. According to a 2009 study on the issue, for instance, only 129 juveniles were serving life without parole for nonhomicides, 77 of which were from Florida. The rest were in only 10 states -- California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia. The remainder of the states that authorize life without parole sentences for nonhomicides do not use the sentence. Thus, the court concluded, “it is fair to say that a national consensus has developed against it.”

Nonetheless, while national consensus on a punishment is “entitled to great weight,” it is not determinative of whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, the court wrote. Other factors, however, supported the conclusion that the punishment was indeed cruel and unusual.

First, the court pointed to the nature of juveniles and “developments in psychology and brain science [that] continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” Juvenile brains, for instance, do not mature until late adolescence, and juveniles “are more capable of change than are adults,” the court explained.

Retribution and deterrence could not support the sentence, either. “Retribution is a legitimate reason to punish, but it … does not justify imposing the second most severe penalty on the less culpable juvenile nonhomicide offender.” Likewise, deterrence did not justify the sentence 
“[i]n light of juvenile nonhomicide offenders’ diminished moral responsibility,” the court held.

Incapacitation and rehabilitation were inadequate bases for the sentence as well. “[A] life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity,” the court wrote. The court also noted an international consensus against the punishment.

Accordingly, the court held that the “Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.” The court, however, emphasized that a state must “not guarantee the offender eventual release.”
Rather, “if it imposes a sentence of life, it must [only] provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.”

Thus, in the end, juveniles convicted of nonhomicides may still remain in prison for their natural lives as the court afforded a right without a remedy. Indeed, the Attorney General of the State of Florida has said that he intends to try to keep Graham in prison for at least 40 years. See: Graham v. Florida, 
130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010).

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Related legal case

Graham v. Florida