On Monday the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes that do not involve homicide. The case, Graham v. Florida, had been closely watched by juvenile law advocates and law enforcement and the decision represents a victory for all those fighting for criminal justice reform.
In many ways the decision marks the logical extension of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, particularly when dealing with juvenile offenders. In 2005 the Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders, and those who argued against imposing sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles noted that a life without parole sentence was akin in many respects to a death sentence. And Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the five-member majority, agreed, stating that if a court imposes a life sentence on a juvenile it “must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.”
With the ruling the United States joins what can only be described as the rest of the world’s democracies in how children are treated in the criminal justice system, a fact not lost on the majority. But this fact mattered little to the dissenters Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito who argued that the Court had overstepped its bounds. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and the federal government all have laws that allow life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses, and according to the minority opinions, those laws reflect a super-majority of cultural values in favor of the punishment. To rule otherwise, according to the dissent, was to usurp the will and the judgment of the state’s electorate.
While the ruling can certainly be considered a step in the right direction, it is important to note its limitations. For instance, the ruling does not set a ceiling on the number of years a juvenile can serve for a particular offense. Instead, it simply calls for some “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The Court left it to each state to explore that means and create mechanisms for compliance, which means that the procedure of providing juveniles that opportunity not only remains to be worked out, but has the possibility of being inconsistent between states, a reality that could pose its own constitutional challenges.
In the meantime, it’s a victory those of us fighting for juvenile justice reform will take, even if it is a cautious victory while we wait for states like Florida and Mississippi to work out the process for guaranteeing juveniles meaningful opportunity for release. And the ruling does not touch the 2000 or so juveniles who are currently serving life without the possibility of parole sentences for crimes that did involve death, but that were committed before the juvenile was 17. For those children, it is important to remember that the juvenile convicted was not necessarily the person responsible for the death–only that one occurred during the commission of a crime. The next question we need to ask is if our resources and our values are best served in giving up on these kids as well.
photo courtesy of abardwell via Flickr