Supreme Court Rejects Some Life Terms For Juveniles

The court on Monday struck down as unconstitutional life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders who have committed crimes other than murder.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

The Supreme Court has just struck down as unconstitutional life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders who have committed crimes other than murder. Joining us now is NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Nina, can you tell us what this case is about?

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, the defendant here was a kid named Terrence Jamal Graham, and he was 16 years old when he pled guilty to armed burglary. He and a bunch of friends had robbed a barbeque. One of his accomplices had hit the store owner over the head with a metal bar. He got probation and 12 months in the county jail. And six months after he was released, he was arrested by police again while fleeing the scene of a crime. This time, the judge said, basically, I've given up on you. I gave you a chance when I gave you probation. Now you get the maximum, which is life in prison without parole.

And so Graham's lawyers, then, went all the way to the Supreme Court, claiming that the penalty of life in prison without parole for a juvenile offender who does not commit a homicide is cruel unusual punishment. And today, the Supreme Court agreed by a six-to-three vote.

NEARY: And what's the reasoning behind that decision, that it's cruel and unusual punishment?

TOTENBERG: Well, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for five of the six justices in the majority. He noted that while 37 states allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime, only 10 states actually do it. And so therefore, he said there is no national consensus for this penalty. In fact, there's a consensus the other way, and that under our standards, current standards, therefore this is a disproportionate penalty, therefore cruel and unusual punishment and that Florida - where this crime occurred - is the outlier. Seventy-seven of the juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole out of 129 are in Florida.

NEARY: Legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: Thanks, Lynn.

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