Graham v. Florida Analysis: Kids Are Different

May 20, 2010
Guest Post

By Stephen K. Harper and Randy A. Hertz. Harper is an Adjunct Professor of Juvenile Justice, University of Miami School of Law, and Hertz is the Director of Clinical and Advocacy Programs and Professor of Clinical Law, NYU School of Law.
In Graham v Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed what it found in Roper v Simmons: kids are different. In Roper, children and adolescents were found to be so different from adults that, as a class, they should not be eligible for death. Graham found that these differences now apply in non-homicide cases where juveniles were sentenced to life without any possibility of parole. In Roper, the Court recognized what we know instinctively -- and what science continues to teach us -- that "juveniles have a ‘lack of maturity and an undeveloped sense of responsibility'; they are ‘more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure' and their characteristics are ‘not as well formed.'"

The Court found that life without any possibility of parole is a sentence that simply means there is no chance for the young offender to later "demonstrate growth and maturity." It is that maturity that "can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal and rehabilitation." An adolescent sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole stands for the proposition that some children are completely finished before they are even completed.

Juveniles are less culpable precisely because they don't have the same mature judgment, sense of consequence and sense of self as does an adult. They are developmentally immature in areas of impulse control, sensation-seeking, future orientation, and susceptibility to peer pressure and other external influences. They are also more changeable and malleable than adults. Indeed as stated in the amicus brief (in support of Graham) by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, juveniles "unformed identity makes it less likely that their offenses evince a fixed bad character and more likely that they will reform." And, as was further pointed out by the amicus brief of American Medical Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "the structural and functional immaturities of the adolescent brain provide (even) a biological basis for the behavioral immaturities." (Emphasis added)

It is important to note that none of this means that any juvenile offender is guaranteed a release from prison. (For more on juvenile life sentences without parole, see the Equal Justice Initiative.) Many juvenile offenders found guilty of non-homicide offenses will indeed spend the rest of their lives in prison. What the Court did hold is that because Graham was a juvenile at the time of his crime, he is now entitled to "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." The Court found that the Eighth Amendment "does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders will never be fit to reenter society."(Emphasis added)

As Justice Stevens pointed out in his concurrence, "knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes. Punishments that did not seem cruel and unusual at one time may, in light of reason and experience, be found to be cruel and unusual at a later time." Indeed, the legal standards for measuring what is "cruel and unusual" are "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

Justice Thomas argued in his dissent that the holding of Roper dealing with the many differences between kids and adults should have been confined to death penalty cases."The Constitution gives special protections to capital defendants because the death penalty is a uniquely severe punishment..." That is, death is different. His argument was that in non-death cases, like this one, the Court has always given and should give "substantial deference to legislative choices regarding the proper length of prison sentences."

The majority of the Court unequivocally rejected Justice Thomas' position.

The arguments in Graham v Florida basically came down to which "difference" is more important. Was it that death is different and therefore the findings and holdings of Roper should be confined only to death penalty cases? Or was it that the differences between kids and adults are simply far more important than any legal doctrine. That kids are different prevailed, as it should have.