Court Bars Life Terms For Youths Who Haven't Killed

The Supreme Court has ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles who have committed crimes other than murder are unconstitutional.

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It is cruel and unusual punishment to lock up teenagers for life without chance of parole if they didnt kill anyone. Thats according to the U.S. Supreme Court today. The six to three ruling could open the prison doors for at least some inmates. One hundred twenty-nine people are currently serving life terms without parole for non-homicide crimes they committed while under 18.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Florida leads the nation in meting out life terms without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. Of the 129 juveniles sentenced to serve such terms, 77 come from the Sunshine State. Ruling in one of those cases today, the Supreme Court declared that imposing such a totally hopeless penalty on juvenile offender who's not killed anyone is so harsh, so disproportionate in the context of the rest of the criminal justice system, that it violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The case before the court was illustrative. Terrance Graham was 16 when he participated in a robbery where an accomplice hit the restaurant manager with a pipe. After serving a year in jail, Graham was released on probation. Six months later, he was arrested while fleeing from police in connection with another armed robbery.

The judge, finding that Graham had violated probation by running from the police, this time sentenced him to the maximum permissible for the original crime: Life in prison without parole.

Today, a six-justice Supreme Court majority ruled the sentence unconstitutional. Writing for five of the justices in the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed to the court's 2005 decision declaring the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles.

Some of the same reason, he said, applies to life terms without parole. Juveniles are deemed less culpable than adults. Scientific evidence shows there's no way to predict which ones will remain dangerous and which are just going through a passing phase. And a life sentence without parole does not allow the offender the chance to ever demonstrate that he's fit to rejoin society.

Yes, the court said, non-homicide crimes can be horrific, but they're different from a crime in which the victim dies.

Finally, the court said that while 37 states have laws allowing life terms without parole for juveniles, in practice only Florida and 10 other states impose the penalty. Thus, the court concluded there's no national consensus that such juvenile offenders are among the worst of the worst, justifying such a serious penalty with no hope of ever getting out of prison.

The court however did not require Florida or any other state to release Graham or any other juvenile sentenced to life. Rather, the justices said, the states must give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

Bryan Stephenson, who represents juvenile offenders across the country, says that even though Florida and many other states have abolished parole, they can reinstitute it for juvenile offenders sentenced to life for non-homicide crimes.

Mr. BRYAN STEPHENSON (Attorney): There are a variety of ways to do this. But I think the constitutional requirement will be realistic possibility of release.

Mr. CULLY STIMSON (Senior Legal Fellow, The Heritage Foundation): So this will affect very few people in practical terms.

TOTENBERG: Cully Stimson, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "Adult Time for Adult Crimes."

Mr. STIMSON: These have a ripple effect. And so it'll take some time for the states who authorize this sentence to tweak the laws on the books to sort out what happens.

TOTENBERG: Gene Schaerr, who filed the brief in this case on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association, contends today's ruling is hardly the end of the story.

Mr. GENE SCHAERR (Counsel of Record, National District Attorneys Association): I think the court has now put itself on a slippery slope that is going to encourage other litigants, especially other juvenile offenders, to come back to the court with other claims.

TOTENBERG: Advocates for juveniles, he says, will use today's ruling to contest other penalties, including life terms without parole for juveniles convicted of homicides.

Bryan Stephenson doesnt dispute that.

Mr. STEPHENSON: We've got a lot of kids who are sentenced to life without parole in homicide cases, where there are three older co-defendants that everyone acknowledges is infinitely more culpable than the younger. We've got felony murder cases. We've got involuntary murder cases. We've got all kinds of homicide cases that dont make you eligible for the death penalty, but then do make you eligible for life without parole.

TOTENBERG: So there's more to come on this.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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