The US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing youth who "did not kill or intend to kill" to life without parole is unconstitutional. The Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that imposing a life without parole sentence on juveniles who do not commit homicide constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution.
In the majority opinion, issued May 17, 2010, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: "…the limited culpability of [youthful] offenders, and the severity of these sentences all lead the Court to conclude that the sentencing practice at issue is cruel and unusual." Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, slip. op. at 23, 560 U.S. __ (2010). The Court, importantly, also recognized that "[f]rom a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed." – Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, slip. op. at 17, 560 U.S. __ (2010).
NCYL participated as one of the amici groups in the case, and is among many youth advocacy organizations across the country working to ban life without parole sentences for all juveniles. Read more.
Approximately 129 juveniles nationwide will have their life without parole sentence vacated as a result of the Graham decision, and many others may now seek to have the Courts' holding and underlying rationale extended to their case.
In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court struck down the use of the death penalty to punish youth for crimes committed under the age of 18.7 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.
Indeed, Justice Kennedy stated: " … criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants' youthfulness into account would all be flawed." Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, slip. op at 25, 560 U.S. __ (2010)