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Graham v. Florida 
560 U.S. 48 (2010)

Decided: May 17, 2010

Vote:  

6 

(Roberts, J, Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor)

3 

(Scalia, Thomas, Alito)

Opinion of the Court: Kennedy
Concurring Opinion: Stevens (Ginsburg, Sotomayor)
Concurring in Judgment: Roberts, J
Dissenting Opinion: Thomas (Scalia, Alito)
Dissenting Opinion: Alito
Oral Arguments: Transcript

Graham v. Florida , 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 Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments,” 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-years’ probation with formal adjudication for the offense withheld after telling the judge, “I’ve decided to turn my life around.” 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 parole—overriding the prosecution’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 in Roper v. Simmons (2005) prohibiting the death penalty for juvenile offenders under the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court set aside Graham’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 from Roper, where he also wrote for a five-justice majority. “Roper established that because juveniles have lessened culpability, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments,” Kennedy wrote. He went on to cite the relative rarity of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile non-homicide offenders—129 inmates currently serving such terms in the United States, including seventy-seven in Florida—as “evidence of a consensus” against the imposition of a penalty that he said was “especially harsh” 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. “The Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide,” Kennedy concluded. “A 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.”

Four justices joined Kennedy’s opinion: Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. In an opinion concurring in the judgment, Roberts said he would reverse Graham’s sentence based on the Court’s previous rulings barring “grossly disproportionate” sentences under the Eighth Amendment. Graham “committed serious offenses, for which he deserves serious punishment,” Roberts wrote. But, he continued, “Graham’s age—together with the nature of his criminal activity and the unusual severity of the sentence—tips the constitutional balance” against the term imposed. Roberts added, however, “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.”

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. “[N]either objective evidence of national consensus nor the notions of culpability on which the Court’s ‘independent judgment’ relies can justify the categorical rule it declares here,” he wrote. In an initial section, Thomas disputed the Court’s role in reviewing sentences for proportionality at all, saying the decisions were “entirely the Court’s creation” and had no “principled foundation.”

Scalia joined Thomas’s opinion in full; Alito joined the section dealing with Graham’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 term—for example, forty years—without eligibility for parole.

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