Sentencing juvenile offender to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crime violated the Cruel & Unusual Punishments Clause

May 21, 2010

Petitioner Graham was sixteen when he committed armed burglary and another crime. As a result of a plea agreement, the trial court placed Graham on probation. Subsequently, the court found that Graham had violated the terms of his probation and revoked his probation, sentencing him to life in prison. The state of Florida does not offer the possibility of release in life cases except executive clemency. Graham challenged his sentence under the Eight Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. The State First District Court of appeal affirmed his sentence.

The Eighth Amendment forbids punishments that are excessive when compared to the crime. In addition, the Courts must evaluate circumstances and offender’s characteristics such as age and intellectual functioning. Courts also evaluate if juvenile offenders have a sufficient maturity and depravity. Moreover, “punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense” Weens v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367.

There are twelve jurisdictions nationwide that have imposed life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders. The United States is the only nation that imposes this type of sentence. In this landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court has now held that Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime.

The case is Graham v. Florida, U.S. Sup. Ct.; May 17, 2010; 08-7412.