Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)

Reversed and Remanded
There is a dissent.

The court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits life imprisonment without parole for a juvenile offender who commits a non-homicide offense. The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is based on the principle that “punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to the offense.” The court noted that its prior cases addressing proportionality fall within two general classifications. The first approach involves a consideration of all the circumstances to determine whether the sentence is “grossly disproportionate” to the crime. See, e.g., Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991) (upholding a life without parole sentence for drug possession under a proportionality review). The second approach involves categorical bans against the death penalty in certain cases where “objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice” established “a national consensus against the sentencing practice.” See, e.g., Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (prohibiting the death penalty for juvenile offenders); and Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) (prohibiting the death penalty for mentally disabled offenders). The court found that the categorical approach was appropriate in Graham because it involved “a particular type of sentence as it applies to an entire class of offenders[.]” Regarding a “national consensus” against the practice, the court noted that 37 states plus the District of Columbia permit sentences of life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders but rarely impose it in practice. At the time of the court’s decision, there were only 123 individuals serving sentences of life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed as juveniles, and 77 of those sentences were imposed in Florida. The court also found that penological justifications for life without parole are inadequate with respect to juveniles. Roper established that juveniles are less deserving of the most severe punishments because they are less culpable than adults. Their diminished culpability results from immaturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, and greater capacity for change. As a result, their actions are less likely than adults to be evidence of “irretrievably depraved character.” The court also could not ignore the reality that a sentence of life without parole, “the second most severe penalty permitted by law,” is especially harsh for juveniles who will on average serve a greater percentage of their lives in prison than adult offenders. The inadequacy of penological justifications, the limited culpability of juvenile non-homicide offenders, and the severity of the sentence lead to the conclusion that life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders is cruel and unusual punishment. The court held that “a State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a non-homicide crime” but it must provide juvenile offenders a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

Concurring Opinions: Justice Stevens filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor joined. Chief Justice Roberts also filed a concurring opinion.

Dissenting Opinions: Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined and Justice Alito joined in part. Justice Alito also filed a dissenting opinion.

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