Life Without Parole Violates the 8th Amendment

On May 17, the US Supreme Court Decided that Juvenile Life Without Parole Violates the 8th Amendment



Petitioner Graham was 16 when he committed armed burglary and another crime. Under a plea agreement, the Florida trial court sen-tenced Graham to probation and withheld adjudication of guilt. Sub-sequently, the trial court found that Graham had violated the termsof his probation by committing additional crimes. The trial court ad-judicated Graham guilty of the earlier charges, revoked his proba-tion, and sentenced him to life in prison for the burglary. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, the life sentence left Graham no possibility of release except executive clemency. He challenged his sentence under the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, but the State First District Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Supreme Court Determined:  The Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime.

Embodied in the cruel and unusual punishments ban is the “precept . . . that punishment for crime should be graduated and pro-portioned to [the] offense.” Weems v. United States, 217 U. S. 349, 367. This includes considerations of whether C a sentence is unconstitutionally excessive based on 1) the defendant’s crime and 2)based on  the characteristics of the offender.

The Court noted that it prohibits the death penalty for defendants who committed their crimes before age 18, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, or whose intellectual functioning is in a low range, Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304.

Writing the Opinion for the Court was Justice Kennedy whose chief arguments were:

  1. Florida State argued that no national consensus exists against the sentencing practices in question, because of the great discrepancy among states of juvenile life without parole sentences. The court noted that “Nationwide,there are only 129 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences for nonhomicide crimes. Because 77 of those offenders are serving sentences imposed in Florida and the other 52 are imprisonedin just 10 States and in the federal system, it appears that only 12 jurisdictions nationwide in fact impose life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders”…They further noted that 26 States and the District of Columbia do not impose JLWOP sentences despite apparent statutory authorization. Finally, they emphasized that these sentences are excessively rare because the  statistics reflect nearly all juvenile nonhomicide offenders who have received a life without parole sentence stretchingback many years.
  2. The Court concluded that the JLWOP sentencing  is cruel and unusual, based on “the inadequacy of penological theory to justify life without parole sentences for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, the limited culpability of such offenders, and the severity of these sentences. They indicated 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.”
  3. The Court determined that a categorical rule was necessary because two alternative approaches failed to address the relevant constitutional concerns. First, Florida and other states tried to enact comprehensive rules to govern the treatment of youthful offenders, but the result is that a judge or jury must make a subjective judgment about whether a juvenile is irredeemably depraved, so that it is impossible to prevent the risk that an offedner will receive a JLWOP sentence without having the moral culpability. Second, a case-by-case approach where an offender’s age is weighed against the seriousness of the crime, does not allow the courts to accurately distinguish teh few juvenile offenders who have the psychological maturity and depravity warranting JLWOP from the many that have the capacity to change as they mature. They further cited that this case-by-vase approach doesnt consider the challenges encountered by counsel in representing juveniles, due to their impulsivity, difficulty thinking in terms of long-term benefits, and reluctance to trust adults.  The courts determined that a categorical rule avoids the risk that a court or jury will in error conclude that a particular youth is sufficiently culpable to deserve life without parole, and gives the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform.
  4. Finally, the Court indicated that  JLWOP has been rejected the world over, with the United States being the only Nation that continued to impose JLWOP.  While the judgments of other nations and the internationalcommunity are not dispositive as to the meaning of the Eighth Amendment, the Court has looked abroad to support its independent conclusion that a particular punishment is cruel and unusual


  • There are just over 100 inmates serving Juvenile life without parole sentences for nonhomicide crimes in Florida and seven other states — California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina — according to a Florida State University study.
  • More than 2,000 other juveniles are serving life without parole for killing someone. Their sentences are not affected by Monday’s decision.
  • Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from Monday’s ruling. Thomas criticized the majority for imposing “its own sense of morality and retributive justice” on state lawmakers and voters who chose to give state judges the option of life-without-parole sentences.