The Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida, by a 5 to 4 vote, that juveniles who have not committed homicide cannot be denied the change to ever rejoin society by given a life sentence without a reasonable opportunity for obtaining parole. The Court found that such a sentence would be a violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
This case goes one step beyond the Court’s 2005 decision banning executions of juveniles for any crime. These lines of cases have been based on the “evolving standards of decency.” The Court has noted that juvenile advocates and child psychologists stress that children and adults process thoughts and actions differently and thus must be treated differently under the law.
The majority decision by Justice Kennedy was met with harsh dissents. Justine Roberts, while agreeing that the sentence in the specific case at hand was unconstitutionally harsh, disagreed with the broader holding, arguing that it should be considered on a case-by-case basis whether a life sentence is proper, because some crimes are simply so heinous, that even if it does not involve the actual death of a human, they are still worthy of the death penalty, even if the crime is, say, committed by a 17 year old, as opposed to an 18 year old. Justice Thomas further argued that basing the decision on the “evolving standards of decency” is “entirely the court’s creation” and thus Kennedy’s logic fails.
Commentators speculate that the decision will lead to an influx in litigation regarding juveniles whom have been serving life sentences for non-homicide crimes. Further, as the Supreme Court has been steadily deciding cases in protection of juveniles, it is questionable how far this protection could be extended.
Florida v. Graham, 560 U.S. ____ (2010).