Sometimes kids do terrible things. This can result in difficulty balancing interests within the criminal justice system. When minors have done truly awful things, what are the limits of punishment? What role should age play when deciding punishments? Recently the Supreme Court of the United States set new restrictions; a state may not sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses.
The Case of Terrance Jamar Graham
When he was 16 years old, Terrance Jamar Graham was charged as an adult for committing armed burglary with assault or battery and attempted armed robbery. Both were felony offenses, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and 15 years in prison, respectively.
Graham pled guilty to both charges under a plea agreement, stating, “[T]his is my first and last time getting into trouble.” The court accepted the plea agreement and withheld adjudication of guilt on both charges. Graham received a sentence of concurrent three-year terms of probation, the first 12 months of which were to be served in county jail, with credit received for the time served awaiting trial.
Less than six months after his release, Graham was arrested for allegedly committing a home invasion robbery and attempting a second robbery, during which one of the two accomplices was shot. After dropping the accomplices at the hospital, a police sergeant signaled for Graham to stop; instead, he continued at high speed, crashed into a telephone pole, tried to flee on foot and was apprehended. Officers found three handguns in his car.
The court found that Graham violated his probation. At the sentence hearing, Graham’s attorney requested the minimum nondeparture sentence of five years; the Florida Department of Corrections recommended that Graham receive four years at most; and the State recommended that Graham receive 30 years on the armed burglary count and 15 years on the attempted robbery count.
The judge found Graham guilty of the earlier charges and sentenced him to the maximum terms of life in prison and 15 years. The judge explained to Graham, “Given your escalating pattern of criminal conduct, it is apparent to the Court that you have decided that this is the way you are going to live your life and that the only thing I can do now is try to protect the community from your activities.”
Florida has abolished its parole system, meaning that only way for Graham to be released would have been by executive clemency.
Graham v. Florida
No one questions that Terrance Graham committed a serious crime, or that some form of punishment was warranted. However, one must question the extent of punishment, given that he was still a juvenile at the time the crime was committed.
The Eighth Amendment dictates that, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” The central question at issue in this case, though, was the definition of cruel and unusual punishment. As applied to a minor, does a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole constitute cruel and unusual punishment?
Agreeing that the sentence of life without parole for a juvenile defendant means a denial of hope, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. The Court found a clear and categorical line necessary. Merely considering the offender’s age at the time of the crime provides inadequate protection for juveniles under the Eighth Amendment.
However, the prohibition extends only to making the judgment at the outset that non-homicide juvenile offenders never will be fit to reenter society. Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, cautioned that the states are not required to guarantee eventual freedom but only some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation at some point. Some 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 judgment was therefore reversed the judgment and Graham will have to be resentenced. What Graham means for other prisoners is uncertain. According to a recent study and the Court’s supplement to those findings, there are 129 juvenile non-homicide offenders serving life without parole sentences. Nothing in the Court’s ruling requires that these offenders be resentenced.
While the standard itself does not change, Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is evolving. Its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change. In 2005, the Supreme Court decided in Roper v. Simmons that the Eighth Amendment prevents execution of those who were under the age of 18 at the time they committed a crime. The Graham decision leaves open for future interpretation what is required under a meaningful opportunity to obtain release.
Juveniles or parents of juveniles who have been charged with serious offenses should contact an attorney promptly. An experienced lawyer can protect important constitutional rights before and during trial.