17 May 2010

Juvenile Life Without Parole Limited

In Graham v. Florida (08-7412), the Court reverses and remands, in an opinion . . . by Justice Kennedy. The vote is 6-3, with Justice Thomas dissenting, joined by Justice Scalia and in part by Justice Alito. . . .

•Holding: It is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole when the crime does not involve murder, given the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The Court dismisses Sullivan v. Florida (08-7621) as improvidently granted, in this per curiam opinion.

Via SCOTUS Blog.

Death is different, both when it is a result of a crime, or a punishment for a crime, and life without possibility of parole is different from other sentences.

Graham involved a prosecution for armed robbery by a sixteen year old who was on probation at the time and tried as an adult. The case was unusual in that no one before the court had requested the life without parole sentence imposed by the trial court:

The maximum was life imprisonment. Graham’s attorney requested the minimum nondeparture sentence of 5 years. A presentence report prepared by the Florida Department of Corrections recommended that Graham receive an even lower sentence—at most 4 years’ imprisonment. The State recommended that Graham receive 30 years on the armed burglary count and 15 years on the attempted armed robbery count.

But, the majority ruling does not depend on this odd factual situation, even though the Chief Justice gives this great weight in his own case by case analysis of the situation in his concurring opinion. Instead, key to the outcome from the majority is the following factual observation (citations omitted):

[T]here are 129 juvenile nonhomicide offenders serving life without parole sentences. A significant majority of those, 77 in total, are serving sentences imposed in Florida. The other 52 are imprisoned in just 10 States— California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia— and in the federal system.

Colorado is not on the list, because all of its juveniles serving life without parole were convicted of murder, although frequently in felony murder cases where the juveniles were not the individuals who did the actual killing, and were rather merely part of a group of offenders engaging in a felony that produced a death.

Graham affirms as good law, a critical case for a large number of Colorado juveniles serving life without parole, the constitutionality of the death penalty for non-triggermen in felony murder cases, despite its rarity. Enmund, 458 U. S., at 794 (only six executions of nontriggerman felony murderers between 1954 and 1982).

Florida law is also an outlier in who is eligible to be punished as an adult:

[U]nder Florida law a child of any age can be prosecuted as an adult for certain crimes and can be sen-tenced to life without parole. The State acknowledged at oral argument that even a 5-year-old, theoretically, could receive such a sentence under the letter of the law.

In contrast:

[T]he United States is the only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders. We also note, as petitioner and his amici emphasize, that Article 37(a) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U. N. T. S. 3 (entered into force Sept. 2, 1990), ratified by every nation except the United States and Somalia, prohibits the imposition of “life imprisonment without possibility of release . . . for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”

Israel is the only country in the world besides Israel which has used life in prison without parole for juveniles, and all seven of its cases involved homicide or attempted homicide cases.

The court's reasoning continues the line of cases that have held that the death sentence is not available for rape or most non-murder crimes (leaving an exception for "crimes against the state"), and that juveniles are not eligible for the death penalty, making the point that life without parole is different in kind from other non-death penalty sentences.

The court also makes clear that life with possibility of parole sentences are permitted for juvenile offenders and does not specify precisely how this is to be implemented:

A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime. What the State must do, however, is give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. It is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance. It bears emphasis, however, that while the Eighth Amendment forbids a State from imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile nonhomicide offender, it does not require the State to release that offender during his natural life. Those who commit truly horrifying crimes as juveniles may turn out to be irredeemable, and thus deserving of incarceration for the duration of their lives. The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of nonhomicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.

The state must merely provide "some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term."

Sullivan, the companion case with a defendant who was convicted of rape committed at age thirteen and sentenced to life without possibility of parole, was dismissed as improvidently granted for reasons that are not clear from the opinion. Before today, it had been assumed that relief might have been granted in Sullivan, but not in Graham.

The distinction that the Supreme Court notes continues to be viable between non-triggerman felony murder cases on one hand, and non-murder cases on the other, and between attempted murder cases and non-murder cases in the Israeli example, as well as the Supreme Court's unwillingness to reconsider broadly its past 8th Amendment precedents and its affirmative allowance of life with parole sentences for juveniles who do not commit murder suggest that the Supreme Court has come close to its limits in its 8th Amendment jurisprudence.

On the other hand, this case upholds the distinction between adults and almost juveniles that a case like Graham blurs.

Today's ruling does not absolutely rule out a finding that life without parole is unconstitutional for juvenile non-triggerman felony murder defendants, but it does not make that finding a foregone conclusion either, and it weakens the case for life without parole for other juvenile murder defendants.

But, today's ruling does give some hope to juveniles serving very long sentences that are tantamount to life without possibility of parole, despite being stated as a term of years, by dismissing that distinction as having much constitutional importance. A juvenile not eligible for parole from a term of years prison sentence for a non-murder crime who is not eligible for parole for sixty years or so may be able to make a strong argument for relief under Graham.

There are 46 juveniles serving life without parole sentences in Colorado. Two-thirds of the convictions were for murder, and one-third were for felony murder, in which the juvenile did not personally kill anyone but played a role in a robbery or other dangerous felony in which an accomplice killed someone. Under current law, juveniles are always eligible for parole after forty years for any offense.


SmithCommaJohn said...

This seems like a pretty reasonable decision. As long as they don't go much further in limiting the application of LWOP (since I believe that it is an appropriate punishment in the most extreme cases), it's good that minors who commit non-homicide crimes will have the opportunity to show that they've been rehabilitated.

After all, society gains a lot more from a criminal being reformed and turned into a productive citizen than they do from a criminal rotting in prison forever.

Anonymous said...

It was a very reasonable decision that didn't go far enough. Should kids who were only party to a felony really share in ALL of the consequences of murder? I think that law puts us on a moral footing with countries that think women ought to be stoned to death for adultery. Practices like direct file which are used to achieve such high objectives as caging a child for the rest of their lives are abominable. The politicians who use such practices to achieve those ends (in contravention of the separation of powers doctrine) ought to be treated as the abominations they are.