Supreme Court limits life sentences without parole for young criminals

The Supreme Court for the first time put a broad constitutional limit on prison terms Monday, ruling it is cruel and unusual punishment to give a young criminal a life term in prison with no chance for parole for a crime that does not involve murder.

In a 6-3 decision, the court struck down the laws in Florida and 36 other states which permit life prison terms for criminals who were under age 18 at the time of their crimes. Currently, 129 prisoners are serving such terms nationwide, and 77 of them are in Florida.

In the past, the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment has been used mostly to limit use of the death penalty. The justices have been wary of limiting prison terms.

But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court, said a life prison term with no chance for parole is too extreme for a juvenile criminal whose offenses involve robbery or assault. He also noted that prior to today, "The United States is the only nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile non-homicide offenders."

Kennedy said these young criminals are not entitled to a "guarantee" of eventual release, but they do deserve "some realistic opportunity to obtain release" if they can show they are no longer a danger to the community.

The ruling came in the case of Terrance Graham, who as a teenager in Jacksonville, Fla., was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the armed robbery of a restaurant and a later home invasion robbery. He was 17 when a judge sent him to prison for life with no chance for parole.

Kennedy said this sentence would mean "he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release, no matter what he might do to demonstrate that the bad acts he committed as a teenager are not representative of his true character, even if he spends the next half century attempting to atone for his crimes and learn from his mistakes."

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined his opinion in Graham vs. Florida. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concurred in Graham's case, but did not go along with Kennedy's broader ruling.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.

Most states that have such laws are not currently using them. Besides Florida, 10 other states have inmates who were sent to prison for life for crimes that do not involve a homicide, Kennedy said. They are California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia.

Human Rights Watch hailed the decision as bringing U.S. law into line with international standards of justice. The group said 2,574 people are serving life terms for juvenile crimes, but its figures include murderers. "The United States is the world's worst human rights violator in terms of sentencing young offenders to life without parole," said Alison Parker, U.S. director for Human Rights Watch.

(Published by Los Angeles Times – May 17, 2010)

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