Supreme Court restricts life without parole for juveniles

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Juveniles may not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for any crime short of homicide, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, expanding its command that young offenders must be treated differently from adults even for heinous crimes.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that denying juveniles who have not committed homicide a chance to ever rejoin society is counter to national and "global" consensus and violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision follows the court's 2005 decision that, no matter what crime they commit, juveniles may not be executed. It also reinforced the court's view that the Eighth Amendment's protections against harsh punishment must be interpreted in light of the country's "evolving standards of decency."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said states must provide juveniles who receive lengthy sentences a "meaningful" chance at some point to show they should be released.

"By denying the defendant the right to reenter the community, the state makes an irrevocable judgment about that person's value and place in society," Kennedy wrote. "This judgment is not appropriate in light of a juvenile nonhomicide offender's capacity for change and limited moral culpability."

The case involved Terrance Jamar Graham, who was convicted of robbery in Jacksonville, Fla., when he was 16. He received a short jail term and probation but was arrested again at 17 for taking part in a home invasion. The judge in the case sent him away for life.

Kennedy said there were 129 juveniles in 11 states, including Virginia, who had not committed homicides but were serving sentences of life without parole. The majority of them -- 77 -- are in Florida.

Kennedy was joined by the court's liberal wing: Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined them in rejecting the outcome of Graham's case, saying the sentence was so harsh as to be unconstitutional. But he did not agree with the majority's broader pronouncement on life sentences, and said decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

"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.

Experts said that the decision will probably lead to years of litigation but that it represented an important move.

"It is indisputably the court's most important non-capital Eighth Amendment decision," said Douglas A. Berman, a law professor and criminal sentencing expert at Ohio State University. "It is the first highly tangible setting where the court's death penalty work has crossed over" to another aspect of sentencing.

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