Court/Judicial body: Supreme Court of the United States
Date: May 17, 2010 CRC
Provisions: Article 37: Torture and Deprivation of Liberty
Domestic provisions: United States Constitution: 8th and 14th Amendments
Background: In 2004, then 17 year-old Graham was convicted of armed burglary and attempted armed robbery while on probation for similar past offences. Although no lives were lost at any point during or as a result of Graham’s actions, the prosecutor sought and the judge ordered that Graham spend the rest of his life incarcerated, the maximum sentence authorized under Florida law. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, this sentence offered Graham no chance of release.
Issue and resolution: Juvenile justice and life imprisonment without the possibility of release for children. Sentences of life imprisonment without parole may not be imposed for non-homicide offences committed under the age of 18 because doing so would violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”.
Court reasoning: Sentences of life imprisonment without parole would be disproportionately harsh for juvenile offenders who have not committed homicide-related offences and out of step with both national juvenile justice practice and international law. Although most states allow for these sentences in some circumstances, they are rarely used – the majority of the 129 juvenile non-homicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment without parole are in Florida, where this case comes from, and the remainder are spread across just 10 states and the federal system. Internationally, the United States is the only country that imposes sentences of life imprisonment without parole on non-homicide juvenile offenders. In addition, there are factors that make juvenile offenders more open to rehabilitation than adult offenders. Because they are less culpable and have a greater capacity for change, it would be unjust to imprison them for life without giving them a chance to reform and return to the community. States aren’t obligated to parole non-homicide juvenile offenders, but must at some point during their incarceration offer a meaningful opportunity for release.
Dissenting opinion: Sentences of life imprisonment without parole are neither cruel nor unusual punishment for non-homicide juvenile offenders as they are permitted in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Because the majority of state legislatures and by extension the people of the United States believe that these sentences are fair and justified, the Court should not prevent them from incarcerating juvenile non-homicide offenders as they see fit.
Excerpt citing CRC and other relevant human rights “Thus, as petitioner contends and respondent does not contest, the United States is the only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders. We also note, as petitioner and his amici emphasize, that Article 37(a) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U. N. T. S. 3 (entered into force Sept. 2, 1990), ratified by every nation except the United States and Somalia, prohibits the imposition of “life imprisonment without possibility of release . . . for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” Brief for Petitioner 66; Brief for Amnesty International et al. as Amici Curiae 15–17. As we concluded in Roper with respect to the juvenile death penalty, ‘the United States now stands alone in a world that has turned its face against’ life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders. 543 U. S., at 577. The State’s amici stress that no international legal agreement that is binding on the United States prohibits life without parole for juvenile offenders and thus urge us to ignore the international consensus. See Brief for Solidarity Center for Law and Justice et al. as Amici Curiae 14–16; Brief for Sixteen Members of United States House of Representatives as Amici Curiae 40–43. These arguments miss the mark. The question before us is not whether international law prohibits the United States from imposing the sentence at issue in this case. The question is whether that punishment is cruel and unusual. In that inquiry, “the overwhelming weight of international opinion against” life without parole for nonhomicide offenses committed by juveniles ‘provide[s] respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.’ Roper, supra, at 578.”
Notes: This case builds on the precedent set in Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the practice of capital punishment for offences committed under the age of 18 (see CRIN’s case summary here: http://www.crin.org/Law/instrument.asp?InstID=1433). It marks the second time that the United States Supreme Court has cited the CRC, which is noteworthy given that the United States has not ratified the Convention. For more details, read CRIN’s editorial opinion on the case, Supreme Court limits use of life without parole sentences for children in conflict with the law, at http://www.crin.org/resources/infoDetail.asp?ID=22609&flag=news
CRIN comments: As Article 37 of the CRC expressly prohibits sentencing children to life imprisonment without the possibility of release, this decision is consistent with the Convention. However, it also leaves intact the sentences of over 2,000 juvenile offenders convicted of homicide-related crimes currently serving life imprisonment without parole. The United States should take immediate steps to prohibit sentences of life imprisonment without parole for all offences committed under the age of 18 and ensure that persons already serving these sentences are given a meaningful opportunity for release.
Citation: Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. _ (2010) (slip opinion) Link to Full Judgment: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-7412.pdf