On May 17, 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence youth who did not kill or intend to kill to life without parole. In Graham v. Florida, the Court found that juveniles are less developed than adults and cannot be held as responsible for their actions as adults.
Terrance Jamar Graham was 17 when he was sentenced to serve life in adult prison for breaking the terms of an earlier probation agreement. Because Florida does not have a parole system, he was effectively sentenced to life without parole.
The Supreme Court found that his sentence violated the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The decision extends the reasoning the Court used in Roper v. Simmons (2005), which struck down the use of the death penalty to punish youth for crimes committed under the age of 18. In that case, the Court recognized for the first time that by virtue of their age and stage of development, youth are categorically less culpable than adults and, therefore, should not be sentenced to death.
In Graham, the Court emphasized the reduced culpability of juvenile offenders and the transient nature of youth. Because youth are likely to change as they mature, the Court reasoned, they must be given a "reasonable opportunity" to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated since the time of their offense. Life without parole sentences deny them this opportunity. The majority opinion also pointed out that the United States is one of only two countries that sentence youth to life without parole1. The decision is the first to place a categorical restriction on the class of offender who can receive a term-of-years prison sentence.
For more information about the US Supreme Court cases, please contact:
Laura Burstein, Communications Consultant
Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, L.L.P.
1The Court quotes a study which found that Israel imposed life with parole sentences on juveniles but which also "expressed reservations about how that parole review is implemented."