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.