Is Sentencing Juveniles to Life Without Parole Unconstitutional ?
In Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48, the high court considered, for the first time, a categorical challenge to a term-of-years sentence, and concluded the Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for a nonhomicide offense.
The high court reasoned: (1) LWOP sentences are imposed on juvenile nonhomicide offenders so rarely, even in jurisdictions in which such sentences are authorized, that it is fair to say a national consensus has developed against the imposition of such sentences; and (2) the challenged sentencing practice does not sufficiently serve legitimate penological goals (id. at pp. 2026-2030).
The court reached the latter conclusion because:
(1) juveniles, having lessened culpability as compared to adults, are less deserving of the most severe punishments, since they lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are more susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, and cannot reliably be classified among the worst offenders as a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed;
(2) defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers, and so a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill "has a twice diminished moral culpability";
(3) LWOP is the second most severe punishment permitted by law, exceeded only by the death penalty, and its denial of any hope of restoration of life's most basic liberties constitutes an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile;
(4) the legitimate goals of penal sanctions -- retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation -- do not provide adequate justification for LWOP for juvenile nonhomicide offenders (id. at pp. 2028-2030).
In conclusion, the court stated:
"A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime. What the State must do, however, is give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. It is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance. It bears emphasis, however, that while the Eighth Amendment forbids a State from imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile nonhomicide offender, it does not require the State to release that offender during his natural life. Those who commit truly horrifying crimes as juveniles may turn out to be irredeemable, and thus deserving of incarceration for the duration of their lives. The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of nonhomicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society."