Monday, May 17, 2010

A Very Important Detail in the Teen Sentencing Ruling

"A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime. What the State must do, however, is give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. It is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance. It bears emphasis, however, that while the Eighth Amendment forbids a State from imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile nonhomicide offender, it does not require the State to release that offender during his natural life. Those 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 Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of nonhomicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society." Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court in Graham v. Florida.

States can still sentence juveniles who commit non-homicidal crimes to life in prison as long as they provide them with an opportunity for regularly scheduled parole hearings.

I personally never cared for some of the reasoning Kennedy employed in Roper v. Simmons. To me, the court employed some reasoning, some sound (diminished capacity) and some unsound (international standards, evolving standards of decency) to reach the right judgment (minors cannot be sentenced to death). I cannot help but think of what the Chief Justice, who voted with the majority in overturning Graham's life sentence, had to say here:

"So much for Graham. But what about Milagro Cunningham, a 17-year-old who beat and raped an 8-year-old girl before leaving her to die under 197 pounds of rock in a recycling bin a remote landfill. ... Or Nathan Walker and Jackaris Taylor, the Florida juveniles who together with their friends gang-raped a woman and forced her to perform oral sex on her 12-year old son? The fact that Graham cannot be sentenced to life without parole for his conduct says nothing whatever about these offenders, or others like them who commit nonhomicide crimes far more reprehensible than conduct at issue here."

or here:

"A more restrained approach is especially appropriate in light of the Court's apparent recognition that it is perfectly legitimate for a juvenile to receive a sentence of life without parole for committing murder. This means that there is nothing inherently unconstitutional about imposing sentences of life without parole on juvenile offenders; the constitutionality of such sentences depends on the particular crimes for which they are imposed."

Now, the Chief Justice joined the majority in overturning Graham's sentence and compared the severely long sentence he got lighter sentences for crimes far more heinous than his own:

Graham's sentence was far more severe than that imposed for similar violations of Florida law, even without taking juvenile status into account. For example, individuals who commit burglary or robbery offenses in Florida receive average sentences of less than 5 years and less than 10 years, respectively. Unsurprisingly, Florida's juvenile criminals receive similarly low sentences - typically less than 5 years for burglary and less than seven years for robbery. Graham's life without parole sentence was far more severe than the average sentence imposed on those convicted of murder or manslaughter, who typically receive under 25 years in prison. As the Court explained in Solem, "if more serious crimes are subject to the same penalty, or to less serious penalties, that is some indication that the punishment at issue is excessive."

So. Graham got a raw deal. He deserved to get his sentence overturned and a shot at parole. Count me with the Chief Justice on this one.

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