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Eighth Amendment—Life Sentences for Juveniles

The justices grappled with two cases involving the age of young offenders sentenced to life sentences without parole. Joe Harris Sullivan was convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman when he was thirteen and sentenced to life without parole. (Sullivan v. Florida) Terrance Jamar Graham received a similar sentence for armed burglary when he was sixteen, followed by a probation violation the following year, when he took part in a home invasion robbery. (Graham v. Florida)

In recent years the Court has drawn bright lines in cases involving capital punishment. In Roper v. Simmons (2005) it forbade the execution of offenders younger than eighteen, and in Kennedy v. Louisiana (2009) prohibited the execution of people of any age for crimes against individuals other than murder.  The justices had not yet considered whether this logic should be applied to life sentences without parole.

At oral argument a majority of the justices seemed inclined to take age into account, but disagreed over where a line should be drawn or even if there should be line-drawing, and that a case-by-case determination might be more appropriate. Chief Justice Roberts thought that instead of a categorical approach, judges and juries should be required to take age into account when deciding whether the sentence was proportional to the crime. Justice Alito, a former prosecutor, agreed with Roberts in rejecting a bright line standard, but added that some juveniles deserve life without parole, describing cases "so horrible that I couldn't have imagined them if I hadn't actually seen them." Justice Ginsburg noted that when it came to juveniles there were many situations in which a rigid line was drawn.  "Think of the teenager who can't drink, can't drive, can't marry," she said, and that means "no juvenile," no case-by-case evaluation. But Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar told the Court that "death is different." He warned that a categorical rule prohibiting life without parole for juveniles would undermine Florida law.  The state had enacted strong punishments for juvenile crimes in response to a serious problem, and he noted that many states have eliminated parole in their criminal justice systems.  "A categorical rule goes against the national trend and consensus," Makar said.

(At the time of the argument, there were 129 juvenile non-homicide offenders serving sentences of life without parole in eleven states, the vast majority of them—77—in Florida.) Even before the justices handed down their rulings it appeared that Makar was mistaken.  Two states passed, and eleven states had under consideration, legislation that would abolish life sentences for those under eighteen, and also restrict the circumstances under which a juvenile could be tried as an adult.  The reason seems to be that legislators, who long sided with prosecutorial demand for tough laws, are taking into account scientific evidence that adolescents are simply not capable of weighing their actions like adults.

According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, an estimated 200,000 juveniles are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year in the United states.  Forty-five states give juvenile court judges the discretion to transfer a case to an adult court, fifteen states give prosecutors that option, and fifteen states require juvenile court judges to transfer a case to adult court for certain offenses, based on the offender's age or prior record.

In May the Supreme Court ruled in the Graham case that juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Justice Kennedy spoke for himself and Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor in holding that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment categorically forbids such sentences. In essence, Kennedy applied the same bright-line test that the Court had adopted in the juvenile death sentence cases. Kennedy said that both national and international practices supported the Court's ruling.

Chief Justice Roberts concurred in the majority opinion that Graham had received so harsh a sentence as to violate the Constitution, but he rejected the categorical ruling and thought a case-by-case approach would be better.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, and said the majority was wrong about the facts, and that it had been wrong as a matter of principle to even take account of international opinion. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government all had laws allowing life-without-parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.  The fact that the punishment may be rarely imposed does not, as the majority claimed, show that the nation abhors it; it only shows that it is rarely imposed.  In a democracy the people should be free to choose what punishment is imposed on criminals.  "Starting today ours can count itself among the few in which judicial decree prevents voters from making that choice." Thomas was joined by Justices Scalia and Alito.

The Court dismissed the Sullivan case because of procedural problems, but Sullivan, like other juveniles sentenced to life without parole, will now be able to challenge his sentence based on the Graham decision.

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