May 26, 2010

Graham v. Florida: 8th Amendment Limits Sentences for Juvenile Offenses

In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the US Supreme Court decided that people could not be put to death for crimes that they commit before they turn age 18.  Extending that ruling, the Court has now decided that people cannot be given "life without parole" sentences for non-homicide crimes they commit before they are 18 years old. The case is Graham v. Florida (2010).

Terrance Graham was a crack baby who became a troubled teen-ager. Graham violated probation for an earlier violent crime by participating in an armed home invasion robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison, which in Florida meant that parole was not possible.

The Court stated that the law "denied Graham any chance to demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment (barring cruel and unusual punishment) does not permit." 

The upshot of the Court's opinion is that life without possibility of parole sentences are unconstitutional for crimes that people commit while they are juveniles.  The decision does not mean that Florida must someday release Terrance Graham.  It means only that Florida and all states must provide people like Terrance Graham with an opportunity to show that they have reformed and are capable of leading a decent and law-abiding life.