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May 18, 2010

United States Outlaws Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

GRAHAM v . FLORIDA
certiorari to the district court of appeal of florida, 1st district
No. 08–7412. Argued November 9, 2009—Decided May 17, 2010

Petitioner Graham was 16 when he committed armed burglary and another crime. Under a plea agreement, the Florida trial court sentenced Graham to probation and withheld adjudication of guilt. Subsequently, the trial court found that Graham had violated the terms of his probation by committing additional crimes. The trial court adjudicated Graham guilty of the earlier charges, revoked his probation, and sentenced him to life in prison for the burglary. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, the life sentence left Graham no possibility of release except executive clemency. He challenged his sentence under the Eighth Amendment ’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, but the State First District Court of Appeal affirmed.

Held:  The Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime. Pp. 7–31.

(a) Embodied in the cruel and unusual punishments ban is the “precept … that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense.” Weems v. United States , 217 U. S. 349 . The Court’s cases implementing the proportionality standard fall within two general classifications. In cases of the first type, the Court has considered all the circumstances to determine whether the length of a term-of-years sentence is unconstitutionally excessive for a particular defendant’s crime. The second classification comprises cases in which the Court has applied certain categorical rules against the death penalty. In a subset of such cases considering the nature of the offense, the Court has concluded that capital punishment is impermissible for nonhomicide crimes against individuals. E.g., Kennedy v. Louisiana , 554 U. S. ___, ___. In a second subset, cases turning on the offender’s characteristics, the Court has prohibited death for defendants who committed their crimes before age 18, Roper v. Simmons , 543 U. S. 551 , or whose intellectual functioning is in a low range, Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U. S. 304 . In cases involving categorical rules, the Court first considers “objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice” to determine whether there is a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue. Roper , supra, at 563. Next, looking to “the standards elaborated by controlling precedents and by the Court’s own understanding and interpretation of the Eighth Amendment ’s text, history, meaning, and purpose,” Kennedy , supra, at ___, the Court determines in the exercise of its own independent judgment whether the punishment in question violates the Constitution, Roper, supra , at 564. Because this case implicates a particular type of sentence as it applies to an entire class of offenders who have committed a range of crimes, the appropriate analysis is the categorical approach used in Atkins, Roper, and Kennedy . Pp. 7–10.

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