Justices Consider Constitutionality of Juvenile Life Sentences

November 9, 2009
The Supreme Court heard oral argument in two Florida cases involving whether life sentences for juveniles, with no chance of parole, violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Associated Press reports that the justices appear "sharply divided" over the issue. The news service notes that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that "because of immaturity, you can't really judge a teenager at the point of sentencing," but that Justice Samuel Alito seemed to side with Florida, which is arguing that that the juveniles' punishment does not raise constitutional concerns.

In analysis for SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston writes that Chief Justice John Roberts "made a strong - and repeated - effort on Monday to recruit a majority of the Supreme Court in favor of giving juveniles more chance to use their age to challenge life-without-parole prison terms, as an alternative to a flat constitutional bar against ever imposing that sentence." Denniston explains that Roberts' "alternative would apparently be a declaration that the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment required judges to take the offender's youth into account in setting any sentence for term of years, then judge whether that sentence was ‘proportional' both for an offender of that age and for the particular crime."

Sullivan v. Florida involves the sentence of Joe Sullivan, who as 13 when the state sentenced him for life without parole for a sexual assault conviction. Graham v. Florida involves Terrance Graham who was sentenced at 17 after violating his probation. The Washington Post reports that nationwide more than 100 people "are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles that did not result in a death ...."

In a guest post for ACSBlog, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree analyzed the cases and concluded, in part, that the Supreme Court should affirm its "reasoning put forth in Roper v. Simmons, which struck down capital punishment for juveniles. Roper established what every parent knows and what science confirms: adolescents are fundamentally different from adults in maturity and judgment."