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Supreme Court restricts life without parole for juveniles

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; A01

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.

In recent years, a slim five-member majority of the court -- with the retiring Stevens in the forefront -- has both limited the death penalty and shielded juveniles. The court has said that capital punishment was reserved for those who take a life and that juveniles, no matter the crime, were not eligible for death because of their limited culpability. Monday's decision was sought by juvenile justice advocates and child psychologists who said the natural extension was to prevent juveniles from being "sentenced to death in prison" without the possibility of release.

The decision did not forbid sentencing someone younger than 18 to life in prison; it only required the state "to provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term." Graham's lawyer, Bryan S. Gowdy of Jacksonville, noted during oral arguments that a law could be constitutional even if it required 40 years to pass before the offender could ask for release.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a stinging dissent, making the now-familiar argument that interpreting the Eighth Amendment according to evolving societal standards is "entirely the court's creation."

He said the majority's logic also fails. "The court is quite willing to accept that a 17-year-old who pulls the trigger on a firearm can demonstrate sufficient depravity and irredeemability to be denied reentry into society, but insists that a 17-year-old who rapes an 8-year-old and leaves her for dead does not," Thomas wrote.

"The question of what acts are 'deserving' of what punishments is bound so tightly with questions of morality and social conditions as to make it, almost by definition, a question for legislative resolution," he wrote.

His dissent was joined in full by Justice Antonin Scalia and in part by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Thomas and Kennedy sparred over what constitutes a national and international consensus. Thomas pointed out that 37 states, the federal government and a number of foreign countries keep life without parole as an option for juveniles.

But Kennedy noted that only a handful of states impose the penalty and that the United States is virtually alone in such sentences. "In continuing to impose life without parole sentences on juveniles who did not commit homicide, the United States adheres to a sentencing practice rejected the world over," Kennedy wrote.

The court made no distinction in its decision in the age of the juvenile at the time of the crime. It did not rule on a separate case it had heard from Florida, concerning Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole for a rape he committed at 13.

Sullivan's lawyer, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, said the case was probably dismissed because of procedural problems, but he said that Sullivan, like the others serving life terms, would now receive a chance to challenge his sentence.

More than 2,000 juveniles are serving life sentences for homicide. Stevenson acknowledged that the next legal front might include a challenge on their behalf, although he said some states, such as Texas, already are prohibiting life without parole sentences for all crimes committed by juveniles.

The case is Graham v. Florida.

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