Monday, May 17, 2010

SCOTUS: No Life Without Parole for Juveniles Charged with Offenses Other than Murder

This just in--the Supreme Court's decision in Graham v. Florida. The bottom line:

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 to obtain release before the end of that term.

The petitioner, Graham, was convicted of armed robbery, which he committed at the age of seventeen after a history of previous crime, and for which he was sentenced to life in prison, which under Florida law does not allow for parole. The Supreme Court decided that such a sentence constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment.

The opinion of the court was written by Justice Kennedy. It is crafted around the notion of proportionality, mentioning that the court has been bitterly divided on some "close cases", such as sentencing under Three Strikes. In this case, however, the proportionality argument is a bit different:

The present case involves an issue the Court has not considered previously: a categorical challenge to a term-of- years sentence. The approach in cases such as Harmelin and Ewing is suited for considering a gross proportionality challenge to a particular defendant’s sentence, but here a sentencing practice itself is in question. This case implicates a particular type of sentence as it applies to an entire class of offenders who have committed a range of crimes. As a result, a threshold comparison between the severity of the penalty and the gravity of the crime does not advance the analysis. Here, in addressing the ques- tion presented, the appropriate analysis is the one used in cases that involved the categorical approach, specifically Atkins, Roper, and Kennedy.

Following these precedents, Justice Kennedy proceeds by seeking "objective indicia of national consensus." Seeing that different states have different legislative schemes for juveniles charged with crimes other than murder (for our purposes: California allows LWOP for juveniles charged with offenses other than murder), he notes that "[a]ctual sentencing practices are an important part of the Court’s inquiry into consensus." And, as the court finds, "an examination of actual sentencing practices in jurisdictions where the sentence in question is permitted by statute discloses a consensus against its use. Although these statutory schemes contain no explicit prohibition on sentences of life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, those sentences are most infrequent. According to a recent study, nationwide there are only 109 juvenile offenders serving sentences of life with- out parole for nonhomicide offenses." (more on that here). Kennedy finds the state's arguments against the study "unpersuasive". The rarity of such sentences, he says, is particularly striking when compared to the base rate of such offenses.

Kennedy also makes an interesting comment about the "adultification" of juvenile proceedings:

Many States have chosen to move away from juvenile court systems and to allow juveniles to be transferred to, or charged directly in, adult court under certain circumstances. Once in adult court, a juvenile offender may receive the same sentence as would be given to an adult offender, including a life without parole sentence. But the fact that transfer and direct charging laws make life without parole possible for some juvenile nonhomicide offenders does not justify a judgment that many States intended to subject such offenders to life without parole sentences.

He then moves on to adopt the reasoning in Roper v. Simmons, where the Supreme Court declared the death penalty for juveniles cruel and unusual. The findings cited in Roper with regard to juvenile cognitive developments are seen as still valid and material for deciding about LWOP as well. The "death is different" argument made by the state did not carry the day.

Finally, Justice Kennedy goes over the aims of punishment, concluding that none of them are served by this exceedingly harsh punishment for juveniles. He rejects a case-by-case solution (such as requiring jurisdictions to take the offender's age into account), explaining that the uniqueness of juvenile proceedings calls for a categorical rule.

Justice Stevens, soon to retire, wrote a beautiful concurrence, including the following:

Society changes. Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes. Punishments that did not seem cruel and unusual at one time may, in the light of reason and experience, be found cruel and unusual at a later time; unless we are to abandon the moral commit- ment embodied in the Eighth Amendment, proportionality review must never become effectively obsolete[.]

Chief Justice Roberts concurred with the judgment in Graham's case, arguing that in some other cases, which involve more heinous crimes, LWOP might be appropriate. Predictably, Justices Thomas and Alito dissent.

The battle for reforming sentencing and rolling back punitivism is far from over. Moreover, this ruling will affect a very small number of juveniles. However, where life without parole is concerned, every potential person who will now have a light at the end of the tunnel is a boon. It is a good day for all of us who care about humane punishment.

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