Graham v. FloridaÂ
560 U.S. 48 (2010)
Decided:Â May 17, 2010
Opinion of the Court:Â Kennedy
Concurring Opinion:Â Stevens (Ginsburg, Sotomayor)
Concurring in Judgment:Â Roberts, J
Dissenting Opinion:Â Thomas (Scalia, Alito)
Dissenting Opinion:Â Alito
Oral Arguments:Â Transcript
Graham v. FloridaÂ , decided by a 6-3 vote, May 17, 2010; Kennedy wrote the opinion; Thomas, Scalia, and Alito dissented.
A juvenile offender cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole for a non-homicide offense.
The ruling, based on the Eighth Amendmentâ€™s prohibition against â€œcruel and unusual punishments,â€ bars a sentence that had been rarely imposed but permitted under federal law and the laws of thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia. In direct effect, the decision required a new sentence for a Florida inmate, Terrance Jamar Graham, who was given life-without-parole after committing a home burglary on December 2, 2004, thirty-four days short of his eighteenth birthday. Earlier, Graham had pleaded guilty in December 2003 to armed burglary and attempted armed robbery for a botched break-in of a Jacksonville restaurant. He was placed on three-yearsâ€™ probation with formal adjudication for the offense withheld after telling the judge, â€œIâ€™ve decided to turn my life around.â€ In the second offense, Graham and two twenty-year-olds broke into a home, held the resident at gunpoint, ransacked the premises, barricaded the resident and his friend in a closet, and then left. A different judge found Graham guilty of violating his probation conditions, revoked the probation, and imposed a life term without eligibility for paroleâ€”overriding the prosecutionâ€™s recommendation for sentences of thirty years for the armed burglary and fifteen years for the attempted armed robbery. The sentence was affirmed by an intermediate appellate court and left standing by the Florida Supreme Court. In appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, Graham cited the decision inÂ Roper v. SimmonsÂ (2005) prohibiting the death penalty for juvenile offenders under the Eighth Amendment.
The Supreme Court set aside Grahamâ€™s sentence, with a five-justice majority agreeing that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits sentencing a juvenile offender to life in prison without possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense. Writing for the Court, Kennedy quoted extensively fromÂ Roper,Â where he also wrote for a five-justice majority. â€œRoperÂ established that because juveniles have lessened culpability, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments,â€ Kennedy wrote. He went on to cite the relative rarity of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile non-homicide offendersâ€”129 inmates currently serving such terms in the United States, including seventy-seven in Floridaâ€”as â€œevidence of a consensusâ€ against the imposition of a penalty that he said was â€œespecially harshâ€ for a juvenile.
As further support for the decision, Kennedy said that only eleven other countries authorized life without parole for juvenile offenders and none of them actually imposed the sentence for non-homicide offenses. â€œThe Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide,â€ Kennedy concluded. â€œA State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.â€
Four justices joined Kennedyâ€™s opinion: Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. In an opinion concurring in the judgment, Roberts said he would reverse Grahamâ€™s sentence based on the Courtâ€™s previous rulings barring â€œgrossly disproportionateâ€ sentences under the Eighth Amendment. Graham â€œcommitted serious offenses, for which he deserves serious punishment,â€ Roberts wrote. But, he continued, â€œGrahamâ€™s ageâ€”together with the nature of his criminal activity and the unusual severity of the sentenceâ€”tips the constitutional balanceâ€ against the term imposed. Roberts added, however, â€œSome 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.â€
In the dissenting opinion, Thomas argued the majority was improperly overriding legislative judgments that actually reflected a national consensus in favor of the availability of a life-without-parole sentence for some juvenile offenders. â€œ[N]either objective evidence of national consensus nor the notions of culpability on which the Courtâ€™s â€˜independent judgmentâ€™ relies can justify the categorical rule it declares here,â€ he wrote. In an initial section, Thomas disputed the Courtâ€™s role in reviewing sentences for proportionality at all, saying the decisions were â€œentirely the Courtâ€™s creationâ€ and had no â€œprincipled foundation.â€
Scalia joined Thomasâ€™s opinion in full; Alito joined the section dealing with Grahamâ€™s sentence, but not the section rejecting the proportionality review of sentencing. In a brief additional dissent, Alito also emphasized that the ruling would permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to a lengthy prison termâ€”for example, forty yearsâ€”without eligibility for parole.