SCOTUS: Juvenile Life Sentences Without Parole In Non-Homicide Cases Violates Eighth Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this week, that juvenile sentences of life without parole in non-homicide cases violates the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, brought humanity and civility back into many courthouses across the United States. No one, this writer included, doubts that juveniles can commit the most horrific of crimes. Nor do I doubt that, if convicted, those juveniles deserve swift and certain punishment – often including lengthy incarcerations. But for too many juvenile defendants in too many courtrooms in this country, “justice” has resulted in sentences of life without possibility of parole (“LWOP,” in criminal law circles,) and in many cases these sentences have produced a severity that is devoid of mercy, and devoid of hope.

Even more disturbing, is that in the vast majority of these non-murder cases, the sentences of life without parole that have been given, have been the product of mandatory sentencing, the dangers of which I have written about previously. Mandatory sentencing has been nothing less than judicial handcuffing, a knee-jerk reaction to crime often producing the worst of legal injustices while almost never achieving the claimed result of lowering crime rates. The Supreme Court’s ruling this past Monday in Graham v. Florida is just such an example of a horrid injustice produced by mandatory sentencing laws. The petitioner in this case, Terrance Jamar Graham was sentenced to a mandatory life term at age 17, without possibility of parole, after he violated his probation sentence for an earlier home invasion robbery; the year before that he was involved in an attempted robbery of a Florida restaurant. Obviously, this kid was trouble. Obviously, he needed to be taught a lesson, and obviously, that lesson needed to involve considerable jail time.

But to sentence a 17 year-old relatively small-time offender to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for a probation violation? That was facially cruel and unusual, and it was a victory for justice and fairness that the Supreme Court heard this case and ruled as it did. Many such sentences have resulted from crimes that involved far less serious offenses, such as drug offenses, sexual assault and even assault and battery. Approximately129 juveniles in prisons across the U.S. are serving such sentences.

While some of these cases involve less serious crimes, many of them involve very serious offenses – and this ruling does not limit the ability of judges to punish such defendants severely, with lengthy prison sentences, when the facts merit such. All it says it that the government cannot preclude the possibility that these convicts, sentenced as juveniles, can at some point in their adult future make at least an argument for their release back into society. Notably, this ruling does not guarantee the release of such convicts. Many of them will spend 10, 20, or more years in prison before they even get the chance to make a case for their release. And when such convicts do offer their arguments for parole, many will be denied. But it affords convicts who have been sentenced as juveniles, at the very least, the opportunity to make their case for release at some point in the future. To quote Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion for the court, “The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of non-homicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life.” It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”

Importantly, the court reaffirmed the fundamental basis for differentiating between juveniles and adults in criminal sentencing. Citing earlier decisions it issued on this point, the court said that, as compared to adults, juveniles have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility'”; they “are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure“; and their characters are not as well formed. These realities mean that “[i]t is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” As a result of these factors “Juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. A juvenile is not absolved of responsibility for his actions, but his transgression “is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.”

The majority’s reasoning reflects widely-recognized differences between an adult and a juvenile personality. Someone under the age of 18 has not yet developed fully into a mature human being – emotionally, psychologically or even physically. Scientific and medical data have shown that generally speaking, juveniles are less able to assess risk, control impulses and comprehend consequences, than are adults. While without doubt juveniles can commit crimes equally horrific to the crimes adults commit, their capacity for growth and change is greater than in adults. To foreclose the possibility of penitence, growth and reversal in character, is not only cruel and unusual, such sentencing ignores and denies the human capacity for positive change – the capacity for correction that our corrections system is supposedly based upon.

The Graham ruling will be widely felt in criminal courts across the U.S. The ruling will invalidate sentencing laws affecting life without parole for juveniles in at least 37 states, including New Hampshire and Rhode Island here in New England, as well as the District of Columbia and the federal government. However, the court’s decision does not affect seven states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont, which allow life without parole for juveniles in cases of homicide. Also, there are six states that do not use this penalty for any juvenile offenders at all, and this ruling obviously does not affect those states.

Again, the court’s decision in Graham does not prevent or limit a judge’s ability to deliver lengthy and harsh prison sentences to juveniles when warranted. It only recognizes that juvenile sentencing should take into account the possibility of the positive change that can accompany human maturation beyond juvenile development.

Importantly, this ruling does not apply to juveniles that have been sentenced to life without parole for murder convictions. It applies only to non-murder convictions. Hence, convicts such as John Odgren, recently convicted of Murder One here in Massachusetts last month and sentenced to life without possibility of parole, will be unaffected. I think the Odgren case presents the penultimate case for the court to examine the constitutionality of juvenile sentences of life without parole in murder cases, and it remains possible that in the future the court may address such a case, but for now, those convictions remain unaffected.