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May 17 2010

Supremes Rule Life Without Parole Unconstitutional for Juveniles

In a 6-3 decision today, the United States Supreme Court struck down laws in 37 states, including Florida and California, that allow a juvenile to be sentenced to life with no chance for parole for a crime that does not involve murder. The case of Graham v. Florida involved a 16 year old sentenced to life without parole (LWOP)  for a string of robberies.  The decision follows on the heels of  Roper v. Simmons, a Missouri case in which the Court (5-4) said it was unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to juveniles.

In both cases the Court took into great consideration international consensus on the issue and that of all of the world’s industrialized nations, the US was the only one to have the death penalty and LWOP for juveniles.  The decision, written by swing vote Judge Anthony Kennedy will likely face immediate criticism from staunch conservatives who  rallied against Roper by arguing that the interpretation of the Constitution should be unaffected by foreign views.  Today, Kennedy ignored that and stated that the “judgment of the world’s nations” deserved to be considered when U.S. judges decided what was cruel and unusual punishment. These international norms are not “binding or controlling,” he said, but they can “provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.”

The other factor the Court considered was that juveniles just are not mature enough to throw away forever without any possibility of rehabilitation. Young criminals may be locked up for years, but they deserve “some realistic opportunity” to seek their release, they said.  With all the new evidence regarding the late formation of the “judgment”portion of the human brain, it is hard to say that any juvenile is beyond hope or should be treated the same as an adult under these circumstances.

Justice Roberts partially joined the majority (he was in the minority  in Roper) saying that while he would not go so far as to say that it is always unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to LWOP,  it was unconstitutional in this case only since the defendant’s crimes were just property crimes and not rapes or assaults.

The usual suspects dissented (Thomas, Scalia, Alito) but I must say, from the point of constitutional analysis, the dissent had many valid points.  Of course, Thomas, who wrote the dissent, had to start out by pointing out that these types of sentences were around when the framers wrote the constitution in 1789 so how could it be unconstitutional? Thomas’ obsessive reliance on the framers is unusual because the majority of the framers would have enslaved Thomas if they found him free on the streets of Virginia.  But after that opening, he essentially focuses  on the fact that 37 states have passed such legislation, so clearly the consensus of the US is that LWOP is OK for juveniles.   But it is his next argument that is somewhat compelling.  It is what my law students argued in a recent debate on this very topic against a prison debate team:  That juries can decide this on a case by case basis so that if a certain  juvenile is mature enough and has committed heinous crimes then he could receive the LWOP penalty.

The majority struck down that reasoning saying that the court needed to create a clear line separating juveniles from adults  for these two harsh penalties:  death and the slow death  of LWOP.

What I think we will see next is that States will enact lengthy maximum sentences for “aggravating”  factors that will have judges sentencing juveniles to 30, 40 or 50 years. Since there is the ” possibility” of parole, these harsh sentences may pass constitutional muster.  What’s important about today’s decision is the court bringing the United States in line with the rest of the world in acknowledging that juveniles are not adults and need to be treated differently in the criminal justice arena.

1 comment

  1. Diana

    While I agree that “juvenilles are not adults and need to be treated differently,” I also disagree that the court needs to consider international consensus. I think the opinion that international consensus is a necessary consideration (even if not binding or controlling) when interpretating the U.S. constitution is a frank breach of sovereignty. Even if one believes the rest of the world is right in acknoweldging the difference between juvenilles and adults, (which I agree with) world consensus should not influence our Supreme Court and their intepretation of the Constitution. Nonetheless, I do agree with the court’s decision (just not all of the rationale). Certainly, I don’t agree with the rationale of the dissenting opinion’s either. Thomas’ reason for dissenting is somewhat cooky considering the other unjust political and social realities that existed in 1789.

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