Supreme Court puts limits on life sentences for juveniles
Juveniles who commit crimes that aren't fatal to their victims cannot receive life sentences without possibility of parole, the Supreme Court ruled 6-to-3 on Monday.
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“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,” Kennedy said. “The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of nonhomicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It forbids states from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”Skip to next paragraph
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Dissent: not judges' job to decide sentence
In his dissent, Thomas criticized the majority’s willingness to move the line of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence by citing the nation’s “evolving standards of decency.”
“The ultimate question in this case is not whether a life-without-parole sentence ‘fits’ the crime at issue here or the crimes of juvenile nonhomicide offenders more generally, but to whom the Constitution assigns that decision,” Thomas wrote.
“The fact that the court categorically prohibits life-without-parole sentences for juvenile nonhomicide offenders in the face of an overwhelming legislative majority in favor of leaving that sentencing option available under certain cases” he said, “simply illustrates how far beyond any cognizable constitutional principle the court has reached to ensure that its own sense of morality and retributive justice pre-empts that of the people and their representatives.”
Thomas’s dissent prompted a reply from Justice John Paul Stevens, defending the court’s recognition of evolving standards of decency. “Society changes. Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes,” Justice Stevens wrote. “Punishments that did not seem cruel and unusual at one time may, in the light of reason and experience, be found cruel and unusual at a later time.”
He added, “Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so.”
Thomas replied in his dissent: “I agree with Justice Stevens that we learn sometimes from our mistakes. Perhaps one day the court will learn from this one.”
In addition to Graham’s case, the high court heard a tandem case involving 13-year-old Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of beating, raping, and robbing a 72-year-old woman. Rather than deciding that case or applying the holding in the Graham case to Sullivan, the court dismissed the Sullivan case as improvidently granted.
Besides Kennedy, the majority justices included Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Chief Justice John Roberts concurred in the judgment but said he does not support the establishment of a categorical rule barring all life-without-parole sentences for nonhomicide juvenile offenders.
- At Supreme Court, no accord over life sentences for juveniles
- States reconsider life behind bars for youth