(Updates with Stevens-Thomas debate starting in 16th paragraph.)
By Greg Stohr
May 17 (Bloomberg) — Youths can’t be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless they are convicted of murder, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a decision that may mean shorter jail terms for scores of inmates.
The ruling, which split the court along ideological lines, extends a 2005 decision that outlawed the execution of murderers who were under 18 at the time of the crime. Both cases turned on the ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment in the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
“This clear line is necessary to prevent the possibility that life without parole sentences will be imposed on juvenile nonhomicide offenders who are not sufficiently culpable to merit that punishment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for five of the six justices in the majority.
Today’s ruling will have its biggest impact in Florida, which Kennedy said houses 77 of the 129 juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole for a crime other than murder. The court’s reasoning might also put new constraints on judges in other sentencing contexts, said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who writes a blog on federal sentencing.
“The Supreme Court today has handed down its biggest and potentially most consequential Eighth Amendment ruling for non- death penalty cases in its history,” Berman said. Lower courts will have to grapple with “just whether and when other extreme prison terms are constitutionally problematic,” he said.
The decision came in the case of Terrance Jamar Graham, who was found to have violated his probation by taking part in an armed robbery at the age of 17.
Four justices — John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — joined Kennedy’s opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts said he agreed with the outcome of the case, making the ruling 6-3 in Graham’s favor, while saying he wouldn’t have imposed a categorical ban on such sentences.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito dissented.
In the 2005 case, a 5-4 decision, Kennedy wrote that those under 18 are generally less mature and more susceptible to peer pressure than adults. “Juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders,” he wrote.
Kennedy repeatedly quoted from that ruling — and reinforced its reasoning — in his latest opinion.
“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,” Kennedy wrote.
At another point, he said that “life without parole is an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile,” who “will on average serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender.”
He said that 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.”
Kennedy said the court was barring a practice that had been “rejected the world over.”
In dissent, Thomas wrote, “I am unwilling to assume that we, as members of this court, are any more capable of making such moral judgments than our fellow citizens.”
Illegal at the Time
Stevens wrote separately to criticize Thomas for interpreting the Eighth Amendment so as to bar only those penalties that were illegal at the time the Constitution was written. Stevens said Thomas would allow the death sentence to be imposed on a 7-year-old who stole $50.
“Society changes,” wrote Stevens, who will retire when the court’s term ends in about six weeks. “Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes. Punishments that did not seem cruel and unusual at one time may, in the light of reason and experience, be found cruel and unusual at a later time.”
Thomas said he agreed with Stevens that people learn from their mistakes. “Perhaps one day the court will learn from this one,” he countered.
The justices separately dismissed the appeal of Joe Harris Sullivan, who was convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman when he was 13. Sullivan was convicted in 1989 and sentenced to life without parole, and one issue in his case was whether he waited too long to press his constitutional argument.
The cases are Graham v. Florida, 08-7412, and Sullivan v. Florida, 08-7621.
–Editors: Laurie Asseo, Jim Rubin.