By Anthony F. Renzo, Professor of Law, Vermont Law School. Professor Renzo specializes in constitutional law and litigation.
Wielding the Eighth Amendment as a sword, the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida outlawed as "cruel and unusual" punishment the imposition of life without parole sentences for all persons convicted of non-homicide offenses when they were juveniles (17 and younger). The Court held that life sentences for juveniles who do not kill violate the Eighth Amendment unless such juveniles have "some meaningful opportunity" to seek release by demonstrating rehabilitation and reform.
Terrance Jamar Ghaham was 17 years old at the time he violated his probation on an armed burglary offense. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial judge who concluded that Graham was incorrigible despite recommendations of limited term sentences by the Department of Corrections and the State prosecutor. Since Florida had abolished its parole system for all crimes, the life sentence left Graham with no opportunity for release for the rest of his life barring executive clemency. Graham's Eighth Amendment challenge to his sentence was rejected on appeal to the Florida District Court of Appeal, which concluded that Graham was "incapable of rehabilitation." In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court reversed, finding such sentences so disproportionate and rare that they could not bear the weight of the Eighth Amendment.
That the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments extends to prison sentences has been treated as settled law for 100 years until the appointment of the current crop of arch-conservatives to the Court, led by Scalia and Thomas, who, joined by Justice Alito, dissented in Graham. Their view is that the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment was limited to outrageous methods of punishment such as torture and did not extend to the proportionality of prison sentences, which, according to their theory, was left to the limitless discretion of State and federal legislative bodies. The majority in Graham takes a quite different approach. In a complete rejection of the dissenters' rigid and narrow reading of "cruel and unusual punishments," the Court reaffirms once again that "courts must look beyond historical conceptions to ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'" Inherent in this process is an inquiry into "proportionality," which is "central to the Eighth Amendment."