Supreme Court Holds That Life Sentence For Juvenile Convicted Of Nonhomicide Offense Unconstitutional

In Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime. In 2003 Graham was sixteen years old. He and some friends tried to rob a Jacksonville, Florida restaurant while masked. They were unsuccessful but in the course of the activity the restaurant manager suffered an injury that required stitches to his head. Graham was prosecuted as an adult. The statute under which he was prosecuted permitted a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Pursuant to a plea agreement Graham’s lawyer succeeded in having him placed on probation for three years. There was no adjudication of guilt at the time the plea agreement was accepted. Presumably, if Graham complied with the terms of probation he would not have a criminal record at the conclusion of the probationary period. Several months later Graham was alleged to have been involved in another crime. Accordingly, his probation officer sought to have him violated. A judge agreed that Graham was in violation of his probation. In accordance with that decision a finding of guilty entered on the 2003 case. The judge then sentenced Graham to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Reversing the Florida Court’s sentence the United States Supreme Court held that “Graham deserved to be separated from society for some time in order to prevent… 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 sentence of this length against a juvenile offender deprives him of the chance “to demonstrate growth and maturity”. In a somewhat cautious twist however the Supreme Court held that states to not have to guarantee “eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime”. The juvenile offender must however be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation”.

The Court noted that thirty seven states, the District of Columbia and a federal statute permit life sentences without the possibility for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Six states forbid any life sentence for juvenile offenders, Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Kansas, Kentucky and Texas. Ironically, each of those states with the exception of Alaska has a death penalty. Massachusetts allows for life without parole for juveniles found guilty of murder only.

Perhaps there is now hope in Massachusetts. Challenges to life sentences imposed against juveniles convicted of murder will likely be challenged on Eight Amendment grounds. There is ample dicta in Graham suggesting that statutes for life sentences without the possibility of parole should be reassessed. In accordance with G.L. c. 265 Sec. 2, Massachusetts mandates life without parole upon murder convictions of juveniles.