It violates the U.S. Constitution's ban against "cruel and unusual punishment" for a state to impose a life sentence without parole on a youngster who commits a crime less than homicide, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday.
In a five-to-four decision in the case Graham vs. Florida, Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court's liberals to overturn a lower court ruling. Writing for the majority, Kennedy said:
The Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life with-out parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity too obtain release before the end of that term.
The decision could affect dozens of people who were sentenced to life terms without parole for crimes other than homicide.
The case involved Terrance Jamar Graham who was 17 at the time he and two older accomplices committed a strong-armed robbery in which Graham, according to testimony, Graham held the gun on the victim. At the time of that robbery, Graham was already under court supervision for another robbery.
The trial judge gave Graham a life sentence and because Florida had ended parole, advocates for juvenile offenders argued that his sentence was essentially equivalent to a sentence of "death in prison."
Terrance Graham's sentence guarantees he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release, 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 non homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.
The Equal Justice Initiative which has advocated on behalf of juveniles who have received life without parole sentences, hailed the court's opinion:
"This is a significant victory for children. The Court recognized that it is cruel to pass a final judgment on children, who have an enormous capacity for change and rehabilitation compared to adults," said Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents Joe Sullivan. "I am very encouraged by the Court's ruling. It's an important win not only for kids who have been condemned to die in prison but for all children who need additional protection and recognition in the criminal justice system."
We previewed this case last year, noting that some notable people who had been child offenders themselves, actor Charles Dutton and former Sen. Alan Simpson, had urged the court to do what it now has.