The Eighth Amendment Bans a Sentence of Life Without Parole Juveniles

In Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48, the defendant was convicted of armed burglary with assault or battery, and attempted armed robbery, both committed when he was 16 years old. Although initially the trial court sentenced the defendant to probation, the court later revoked his probation after he violated its terms by committing other crimes. Thereafter, the trial court imposed the maximum sentence on each count: life imprisonment for the armed burglary and 15 years for the attempted armed robbery. (Id. at p. 57.) The Graham court explained that "because Florida has abolished its parole system, a life sentence gives a defendant no possibility of release unless he is granted executive clemency." (Ibid.) The United States Supreme Court held that "'the task of interpreting the Eighth Amendment remains the court's responsibility.'" (Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 67.) "The judicial exercise of independent judgment requires consideration of the culpability of the offenders . . . in light of their crimes and characteristics, along with the severity of the punishment in question." (Ibid.) The Graham court held that undoubtedly it was established that juveniles have lessened culpability compared to adult offenders. Consequently, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments. "As compared to adults, juveniles have a '"lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility"'; they 'are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure'; and their characters are 'not as well formed.'" (Id. at p. 68.) The Graham court found it was "'difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'" (Ibid.) Accordingly, juvenile offenders cannot be reliably classified as among the worst offenders. (Ibid.) As to the culpability of the offenders in terms of the crimes and characteristics under review, nonhomicide crimes that do not involve killing, intent to kill, or foreseeing that death could occur "are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers." (Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 69.) Some nonhomicide crimes do involve very serious harm, but such crimes are not as morally depraved as murder, because of a murder's "'severity and irrevocability.'" (Ibid.) "This is because 'life is over for the victim of the murderer,' but for the victim of even a very serious nonhomicide crime, 'life . . . is not over and normally is not beyond repair.'" (Ibid.) A juvenile offender "who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice diminished moral culpability," because of both the age of the offender and the nature of the crime. (Ibid.) With respect to punishment, the Graham court concluded that an life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence is the second most severe penalty allowed under the law. "Life without parole is an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile. Under this sentence a juvenile offender will on average serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender. A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only." (Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 70.) The Graham court found the penological justifications for such a sentence lacking with respect to juvenile offenders. The objective of retribution should be directly related to personal culpability. The case for retribution is weaker with a minor as compared to an adult; it is weaker still if the minor did not commit a homicide. (Id. at pp. 71-72.) Further, the Graham court found that deterrence does not justify such a severe sentence. Juveniles are less likely to understand or to be able to take account of deterrence, because of their lack of maturity, underdeveloped sense of responsibility, and lesser ability to consider consequences. "This is particularly so when the most severe punishment is rarely imposed." (Id. at p. 72.) A third possible penological goal--incapacitation, did not justify an LWOP sentence for juvenile nonhomicide offenders. "To justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society requires the sentencer to make a judgment that the juvenile is incorrigible." (Ibid.) The court remarked that such a judgment is questionable, even for expert psychologists, and noted that "'incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.'" (Id. at p. 73.) A penalty of life without parole "forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal," by "denying the defendant the right to reenter the community," and making "an irrevocable judgment about the person's value and place in society." (Id. at p. 74.) An LWOP sentence for a juvenile nonhomicide offender is incompatible with rehabilitation as a penological goal. For example, LWOP prisoners are foreclosed from vocational training or other programs and rehabilitative services that are available to other prisoners. The Graham court concluded that an LWOP sentence, and concomitant exclusion from rehabilitative opportunities, is inappropriate for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, in light of a juvenile's reduced culpability and capacity for change. (Id. at p. 74.) In Graham the United States Supreme Court ruled that although a state is not required to guarantee eventual release to a juvenile nonhomicide offender, "What the State must do, however, is give juvenile defendants . . . 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." (Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 75.) The court observed that some juvenile nonhomicide defendants might actually turn out to be incarcerated for 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." (Ibid.) The court fashioned a categorical rule that "gives all juvenile nonhomicide offenders a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform. The juvenile should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential. . . . Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope. Maturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation. A young person who knows that he or she has no chance to leave prison before life's end has little incentive to become a responsible individual. In some prisons, moreover, the system itself becomes complicit in the lack of development. As noted above, . . . it is the policy in some prisons to withhold counseling, education, and rehabilitation programs for those who are ineligible for parole consideration. A categorical rule against life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders avoids the perverse consequence in which the lack of maturity that led to an offender's crime is reinforced by the prison term." (Id. at p. 79.) Thus, in Graham, the United States Supreme Court held that "the Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. 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." (Id. at p. 82.) In sum, the Eighth Amendment categorically bans imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile nonhomicide offender. (Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 75.)