WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The ruling expanded a principle the court has never endorsed outside the death penalty — that an entire class of offenders may be immune from a given form of punishment.
Five justices, in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, agreed that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids sentences of life without parole as a categorical matter for juvenile offenders who do not participate in homicides.
“A state need not guarantee the offender eventual release,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “but if it imposes the sentence of life, it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. endorsed only a case-by-case approach, but he voted with the majority in saying that the particular inmate in question had received a sentence so harsh that it violated the Constitution.
The case involved Terrance Graham, who in 2003, at age 16, helped rob a Jacksonville restaurant, during which an accomplice beat the manager with a steel bar. Mr. Graham was sentenced to a year in jail and three years’ probation for that crime.
The next year, at 17, Mr. Graham and two 20-year-old accomplices committed a home invasion robbery. In 2005, a judge sentenced Mr. Graham to life for violating his probation.
In the context of capital punishment, the Supreme Court has carved out categories of offenders and crimes that are not subject to the death penalty, including juvenile offenders and those who do not take a life. Monday’s decision applied those two decisions in Venn diagram fashion to life-without-parole sentences.
Justice Kennedy, who was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said both national and international consensuses supported the court’s ruling.
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said the majority was wrong about the facts in both cases and wrong as a matter of principle to take account of the international opinion.
Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have laws allowing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses. That represents, Justice Thomas said, a super-majority of states in favor of the punishment.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Monday, May 17, 2010