Young Offenders 'Less Culpable': Court

By Kenneth Jost
Associate Editor

      Juveniles who commit crimes are less culpable than adult offenders, according to the Supreme Court, and for that reason cannot be imprisoned for life without possibility of parole for a nonhomicide offense.
      The court’s closely divided ruling strikes down sentencing provisions on the books in 37 states and the District of Columbia as well as federal law that permits life-without-parole for juvenile offenders. The decision, based on the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, will apparently require resentencing for 129 inmates currently serving without life-without-parole.
      The decision in Graham v. Florida relied on and extended the court’s 2005 ruling to bar the death penalty for juvenile offenders under the Eighth Amendment. Writing for a five-justice majority in the new case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy quoted extensively from his own opinion in the earlier ruling, Roper v. Simmons.
      “Roper established that because juveniles have lessened culpability, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments,” Kennedy wrote. Compared to adults, he wrote, juveniles have “a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” “are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressures,” and have characters that are “less well formed.”
      “No recent data provide reason to reconsider” those observations, Kennedy continued. In fact, “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”
      The ruling came in the case of a Florida man, Terrance Jamar Graham, sentenced to life without parole in 2006 after a second home burglary conviction. Graham, who was 16 at the time of the second offense in late 2003, received a severe tongue-lashing from the judge at sentencing.
      The judge said that because of Graham’s “escalating pattern of criminal conduct,” it was “apparent” that Graham had “decided that this is the way you are going to live your life.” “The only thing I can do now,” the judge concluded, “is to try and protect the community from your actions.”
      The justices divided for the most part along traditional ideological lines in the ruling. The court’s four liberal justices joined Kennedy’s ruling, while three conservatives —led by Justice Clarence Thomas — dissented. He argued that the court was wrong to override legislative judgments about sentencing.
      The ruling, Thomas wrote, “raises the question whether any democratic choice regarding appropriate punishment is safe from the Court’s ever-expanding constitutional veto.” Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined his opinion.
      Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. disagreed with his conservative colleagues on upholding Graham’s sentence, but also disagreed with the new constitutional rule that the Kennedy-led majority established. Roberts said Graham’s sentence should have been set aside under the court’s precedents prohibiting “disproportionate” penalties. He cited Graham’s age, the nature of his two offenses and the “unusual severity” of the sentence as reasons for finding an Eighth Amendment violation.
      But Roberts said he would not bar life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles. “Some crimes are so heinous, and some juvenile offenders so highly culpable, that a sentence of life without parole may be entirely justified under the Constitution,” Roberts wrote.
      In his opinion, Kennedy said that despite laws on the books permitting life-without-parole for juveniles, the relative rarity of such sentences indicated “a national consensus” against the practice. Juvenile offenders have been sentenced to life without parole in only a dozen states plus one in federal court, Kennedy said. The vast majority of the cases — 77 out of 129 — are in Florida.
      Kennedy said that a life-without-parole sentence is especially severe for a juvenile because it “improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity.” He specified, however, that a state is not required to guarantee a juvenile offender eventual release. Instead, the state must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
      In his dissenting opinions, Thomas emphasized that the ruling did not bar life-without-parole for a homicide offense. And in a brief additional dissent Alito noted that the ruling also would allow states to continue to sentence juvenile offenders to lengthy prison terms; he cited a 40-year term as one example.

      For background, see Thomas J. Billitteri, “Youth Violence,” CQ Researcher, March 5, 2010.