Washington – A divided Supreme Court on Monday said Florida and 36 other states cannot sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes.
In a much-anticipated decision, five of the court’s nine justices agreed the rigid life sentences for juveniles violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court’s majority reasoned that sentences should be calibrated to fit juveniles’ diminished “moral culpability.”
“None of the goals of penal sanctions that have been recognized as legitimate — retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation — provides an adequate justification,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
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The ruling in the case involving convicted Jacksonville burglar Terrance Jamar Graham affects California, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington and the other states whose statutes permit the life sentences for juveniles. Florida, though, will face the biggest impact.
Of 129 juvenile offenders currently serving life without parole sentences for non-homicide crimes, 77 are imprisoned in Florida. The court concluded the very infrequency of the sentence is evidence that it may violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes is as rare as other sentencing practices found to be cruel and unusual,” Kennedy wrote.
The ruling does not affect more than 2,000 inmates now serving life sentences without parole for homicides committed while they were juveniles.
In a move likely to further inflame some of his most conservative critics, Kennedy cited international opinion and practice. The United States, he noted, is one of only 11 nations worldwide to authorize life without parole for juvenile offenders.
Kennedy’s previous invocations of international legal practice have draw fire for supposedly undermining U.S. legal sovereignty, though he stressed Monday that his latest survey of the “global consensus” does not control the Supreme Court’s decision.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. joined Kennedy and justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens in concluding the sentence imposed on Graham was unconstitutional. Roberts, though, said he would have confined the ruling to Graham’s case and not struck down all of the state laws.
“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.
Roberts contrasted, for instance, Graham with the recent case of Milagro Cunningham.
Graham had a horrific upbringing, as the son of crack cocaine addicts. At the age of 16, he placed on probation for attempting to rob a barbecue restaurant in 2003. Six months later, he was arrested again following a home invasion robbery and a trial judge sentenced him to life.
Cunningham, by contrast, raped and beat an 8-year-old girl before leaving her to die in a remote landfill. Roberts’ view was that states should remain free to punish with the utmost severity crimes that are so horrible, a view shared by the three conservative justices who dissented entirely.
“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,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for himself and fellow dissenters Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.
The court declined Monday to issue a ruling in a second Florida case that had been argued, involving the punishment imposed on convicted teenage rapist Joe Harris Sullivan.