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Supreme Court watch: Graham v. Florida

In the matter of Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court considered whether a state can sentence a juvenile to life in prison, with no possibility of parole, when the crime convicted of did not involve homicide.  In a decision that overruled the law of 37 states, the majority found that sentencing such an individual to life in prison without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against Cruel and Unusual Punishment.  In doing so, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, made clear that, at the end of the day, their opinion that the sentence was too harsh was all that was needed to trump the rights of 37 states.


Terrance Graham was 16 in 2003, when he, and two other youths, attempted to rob a barbeque restaurant.  During the commission of the crime, one of the youths struck the manager in the back of head with a metal bar (he required stitches).  The youths then ran away, and Graham was arrested.  He was subsequently charged as an adult with armed burglary with assault or battery, a first-degree felony carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and attempted armed-robbery, a second-degree felony carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment.

Graham pleaded guilty to both counts, and entered into a plea agreement.  He also wrote a letter to the court, stating that he would not get in trouble again.  The trial court accepted the plea agreement. The court withheld adjudication of guilt as to both charges and sentenced Graham to concurrent 3-year terms of probation. Graham was required to spend the first 12 months of his probation in the county jail, but he received credit for the time he had served awaiting trial, and was released on June 25, 2004.

Less than six months later, Graham was again arrested, this time for allegedly participating in a home invasion robbery.  During the invasion, Graham held a gun to the homeowner’s chest while his accomplices ransacked the home for thirty minutes.  Later that same evening, the three allegedly attempted a second robbery.  During the robbery, one of Graham’s accomplices was shot.  As Graham was dropping him off at the hospital, a police officer told Graham to pull over.  Graham then proceeded to lead a high speed chase, until he crashed into a telephone pole.  While Graham denied his involvement in the robberies, he admitted that he violated his probation.  The court sentenced Graham to life in prison.  Florida does not allow for parole.  Graham was 17 when he was convicted.


The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that life without parole, for a juvenile who hadn’t killed anyone, constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  The Court’s decision is interesting because its cited legal support is seemingly contradicted by other portions of the case.  For example, the Court began its analysis by examining the relevant “national consensus.”  In other words, what is the majority of the nation doing?  Well, according to the Court, 37 states, the District of Columbia, and Federal law all allow for life without parole for a juvenile, involving a non-homicide crime.  Apparently the Court didn’t like that answer, because, after stating the national consensus was relevant, it then completely disregarded it.  Instead, the Court inexplicably looked to how many juveniles were currently in prison without the opportunity of parole, for non-homicide crimes.  The answer,

According to a recent study, nationwide there are only 109 juvenile offenders serving sentences of life without parole for nonhomicide offenses.

The Court presumably used the small number to support the notion that actually sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes wasn’t the national consensus.  I find this rationale odd for two reasons.  First, by this logic, practically every crime would not fall within the “national consensus,” because there are far fewer people in prison then there in the population generally; and there are likely far fewer murderers in prison then there are drug-dealers.  Second, the small number actually offers support for the conviction as a practical matter, because it evidences restraint on the part of courts.  In other words, Graham’s sentence is the exception, not the rule.

After seemingly satisfying itself with the outcome of the “national consensus” argument, the Court moved on to the “life without parole for a juvenile who didn’t kill anybody is really mean” argument.

[the sentence] “means denial of hope; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial; it means that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of [the convict], he will remain in prison for the rest of his days.”

I’m deeply moved by the Court’s sentiment.

Next, the Court talks about the importance of penal goals for a sentence.  The Court runs down four recognized goals of punishment: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.  Which goal is chosen is “within a legislature’s discretion,” and any one of these can provide legitimate justification for a sentence.  The Court runs through all four, but the analysis that caught my eye was incapacitation.  The Court stated,

Incapacitation, a third legitimate reason for imprisonment, does not justify the life without parole sentence in question here. Recidivism is a serious risk to public safety, and so incapacitation is an important goal. (citation omitted) (statistics show 67 percent of former inmates released from state prisons are charged with at least one serious new crime within three years).

After providing actual facts to support its finding that incapacitation is a legitimate goal (high recidivism rate), the Court puts on its “let’s make some arbitrary law” hat.

But while incapacitation may be a legitimate penological goal sufficient to justify life without parole in other contexts, it is inadequate to justify that punishment for juveniles who did not commit homicide. To justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society requires the sentencer to make a judgment that the juvenile is incorrigible.

Apparently the majority, who very likely never laid eyes on Graham, did not think he was incorrigible.  The Court then agreed that Graham “deserved to be separated from society for some time in order to prevent what the trial court described as an “escalating pattern of criminal conduct…” but…

…it does not follow that he would be a risk to society for the rest of his life.  A life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity. Incapacitation cannot override all other considerations, lest the Eighth Amendment ’s rule against disproportionate sentences be a nullity.

After reading the Court’s opinion up until this point, I’m wondering what “other considerations” are overriding Florida’s right to throw away the key.

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.

Oh, there’s the overriding consideration.  The arbitrary determination that criminal “like Graham” should be given a chance at parole.  This case is the very definition of judicial activism.  The sentencing of Graham is a state’s rights issue, unless it violates the Eighth Amendment.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it say life without parole for a juvenile who didn’t kill anyone constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  Thus, the Court made it up.  Even more egregious however, was the Court’s failure to apply its own analysis for what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  Instead of giving some deference to the sentencing judge, the majority, from its ivory tower, decided to manufacture some Constitutional law.

Any liberal complaining about the conservative court should be given this case.

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