No LWOP for Non Homicidal Juveniles

Graham v. Florida (08-7621)

The Supreme Court of the United States held today that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), for a juvenile defendant, violates the Eight Amendment as a cruel and unusual punishment.  Justice Kennedy noted in the last portion of the Court’s opinion that a sentence of less than LWOP gives offenders “a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform” over time.

“Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope. . . . A categorical rule against life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders avoids the perverse consequence in which the lack of maturity that led to an offender’s crime is reinforced by the prison term.”

“A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.”

The most interesting passage in the opinion (from a defense attorney’s perspective) is the following:

“Juveniles mistrust adults and have limited understandings of the criminal justice system and the roles of the institutional actors within it.  They are less likely than adults to to work effectively with their lawyers to aid in their defense. . . . Difficulty in weighing long-term consequences; a corresponding impulsiveness; and reluctance to trust defense counsel seen as part of the adult world a rebellious youth rejects, all can lead to poor decisions by one charged with a juvenile offense.”

The opinion is available here.  Discussion on Graham elsewhere here.

For more information on this article, contact Brennan, McKenna, Mitchell and Shay.