In the 2010 case Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the conviction of a 16-year-old sentenced to life without parole after committing two nonhomicide felonies. The petitioner challenged his sentence, arguing that life without parole for a juvenile violated the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court agreed; it overturned his conviction and held that in nonhomicide cases, it was never permissible for a juvenile to receive a sentence of life without parole.
Law in Florida
Generally, states have maintained separate justice systems for minors who commit criminal offenses; this is predicated upon a belief that because of their age, these individuals are less developed and are more likely to be rehabilitated.
In the early 1990s, after a perceived rash of violent crimes committed by minors, Florida, like many other states, began to try 16and 17-yearolds as adults. Florida took a particularly harsh stance, and in 2010, out of the 100 minors who had been sentenced to life without parole, 77 were imprisoned in Florida.
Another parallel development was Florida’s 1985 decision gradually phasing out parole. As a result, by 1995 convicts, including minors, no longer had the possibly of receiving early release under parole.
The Crime and Conviction
In July 2003, Terrance Jamar Graham, age 16, was arrested for robbing a Jacksonville restaurant and beating the manager with a steel bar; he was charged as an adult for armed burglary with assault or battery and armed robbery. Graham pled guilty to both charges; the judge granted him credit for time served, and he received three years probation.
Less than six months later, Graham was arrested for participating in a home invasion robbery. The judge in the case had the option of giving Graham a sentence ranging from five years to life; the prosecution requested a total of 30 years in prison. The judge elected to give Graham the maximum sentence, stating that his participation in a second violent crime indicated that he could not be rehabilitated.
The First District Court of Appeals of Florida upheld the conviction, and the Supreme Court of Florida denied review. Graham then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Legal Issues in the Case
In his appeal, Graham’s defense argued that his punishment was invalid on Eighth Amendment grounds, specifically the clause prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. When assessing whether or not a punishment can pass constitutional muster, a central concern for the court is proportionality, namely the idea that a particular punishment must be proportional to a particular crime. In this case, the defense asserted that his punishment was not proportional and was used infrequently; specifically, of the total number of juveniles nationwide sentenced to life without parole, only 7 percent received this sentence for a nonhomicide offense.
In addition, Graham’s defense argued that although his crimes were severe, as a juvenile who was still undergoing emotional and mental development, Graham was less culpable than an adult. This argument related directly to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, which prohibited the death penalty for those under age 18. In Roper, the court held that since minors committing violent crimes often acted impulsively and were swayed by outside pressures, they should be considered less culpable than adults.
The Supreme Court Decision
In a 6–3 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the majority accepted Graham’s argument that his sentence was unconstitutional. The decision established a categorical rule that juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
To determine whether or not the sentence was proportional to the crime, the court first sought to determine whether or not life without parole for a juvenile was consistent with objective signs of society’s standards. The court noted that although 37 states and the District of Columbia had laws on the books allowing a minor to serve life without parole, this punishment was rarely used. Specifically, the opinion noted that in practice, only 12 states used these sentences; moreover, outside of Florida, this sentence was rarely imposed.
In addition to establishing that there was no national consensus in favor of the punishment, the court also sought to determine whether or not a juvenile offender could be considered fully culpable for his or her actions. Here, the court relied on its analysis in Roper, which used psychology and neuroscience research to argue that juveniles were not fully mentally developed, and thus were less responsible for their actions than were adults.
In invalidating the sentence, the Supreme Court argued that life without parole was the most severe sentence an individual can receive, aside from the death penalty. As such, it was necessary to provide a categorical rule banning the punishment for juveniles, so that individual judges or juries would not give this penalty. Notably, Chief Justice John Roberts did not join this aspect of the opinion, rejecting the necessity of a categorical rule and instead endorsing a case-by-case approach.
This case was also argued with a companion case, Sullivan v. Florida, involving a 13-year-old who was sentenced to life without parole after a conviction for sexual battery. The court did not issue a decision in this case, holding that the writ of certiorari was improperly granted.
- Equal Justice Initiative. “Sullivan v. Florida/Graham v. Florida.” http://www.eji.org/childrenprison/deathinprison/sullivan.graham (Accessed May 2013).
- Levick, Marsha, Jessica Feierman, Sharon Messenheimer Kelley, Naomi E. S. Goldstein, and Kacey, Mordecai. “The Eighth Amendment Evolves: Defining Cruel and Unusual Punishment Through the Lens of Childhood and Adolescence.” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change, v.15 (2011).
- Marquis, Michelle. “Graham v. Florida: A Game-Changing Victory for Both Juveniles and Juvenile-Rights Advocates.” Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, v.45 (2011).
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