Graham v. Florida

In July 2009, NJDC along with dozens of other organizations co-signed a brief arguing that the sentence of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The brief, meant to represent the interests of the juvenile justice community and including dozens of amici nationwide, argued that the United States Supreme Court’s longstanding constitutional jurisprudence requires that youth’s developmental status be considered in construing their rights under the Eighth Amendment, that LWOP sentences are antithetical to the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system, and that such sentences serve no legitimate penological purpose.

In a landmark ruling on Monday, May 17, 2010, the United States Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide offense. Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined.

In holding that the Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime, the Court reasoned that juvenile life without parole for non-homicides is cruel and unusual because penological theory does not  justify life without parole sentences for juvenile non-homicide offenders; categorically, juvenile offenders have limited culpability; and these sentences themselves are incredibly severe. In a reaffirmance of Roper v. Simmons and the brain science on which it relied in part, the Court added that “No recent data provide reason to reconsider Roper’s holding that because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment.” The Court also noted the national consensus against juvenile life without parole for non-homicides, looking beyond the mere number of states that allow such sentences to the actual number of instances in which this sentence has been meted out, to determine that these sentences are, in fact, quite rare.

The Court defended its issuance of a categorical rule. The Court found that across the country, states’ rules governing the treatment of youthful offenders allow the imposition of this very severe sentence based on broad discretionary, subjective determination by a judge or jury that the juvenile offender is irredeemably depraved, and so do not adequately prevent the possibility that the offender will receive such a sentence despite a lack of moral culpability. Second, the Court reasoned that a case-by-case approach requiring that the particular offender’s age be weighed against the seriousness of the crime as part of a gross disproportionality inquiry would not allow courts to pick out the few juvenile offenders who are genuinely depraved enough to merit a life without parole sentence from the many that have the capacity for change. Notably, the Court took particular care to describe the specialized skills demanded of juvenile defense counsel, stating, “Nor does such an approach take account of special difficulties encountered by counsel in juvenile representation, given juveniles’ impulsiveness, difficulty thinking in terms of long-term benefits, and reluctance to trust adults.” Finally, the Court found additional support for the Court’s conclusion in the fact that the sentencing practice at issue has been rejected around the world, as the United States is the only nation that imposes this type of sentence.

Filed: July 30, 2009 (download .pdf)
Amicus Brief Discusses: Adolescent Development; Juvenile Life Without Parole

Oral Argument: November 9, 2009 (listen here)
Decision: May 17, 2010 (download .pdf)