U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Juvenile LWOP for Non-Homicide Offenses

On May 17, 2010, the Supreme Court handed down the much anticipated Supreme Court decisions in Graham and Sullivan — involving two juveniles from Florida who received  Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) sentences for non-homicide offenses.   Many PJDC members were involved in writing amicus briefs and in bringing public attention to the issue of juvenile LWOP.   The National Juvenile Defender Center released the following summary of the holdings:

Today the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Graham v. Florida that the Constitution does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide offense.* Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Stevens filed a concurring opinion, in which Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined. Chief Justice Roberts filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined, and in which Justice Alito joined as to Parts I and III. Justice Alito also filed a dissenting opinion.


On December 18, 2003, 17-year-old Terence Graham pleaded guilty to armed burglary with assault or battery and attempted armed-robbery. Graham’s prosecutor had elected to charge Graham as an adult, which meant that the first crime carried a maximum penalty of life without parole. The trial court sentenced Graham to concurrent 3-year terms of probation. Graham was required to spend the first 12 months of his probation in the county jail, but he received credit for the time he had served awaiting trial, and was released on June 25, 2004. On December 13, 2004, Graham’s probation officer filed with the trial court an affidavit asserting that Graham had violated the conditions of his probation by possessing a firearm, committing crimes, and associating with persons engaged in criminal activity in a subsequent robbery. The trial court held hearings on Graham’s violations about a year later, in December 2005 and January 2006. Graham maintained that he had no involvement in the home invasion robbery; but, even after the court underscored that the admission could expose him to a life sentence on the earlier charges, he admitted violating probation conditions by fleeing. The trial court noted that Graham, in admitting his attempt to avoid arrest, had acknowledged violating his probation. The court further found that Graham had violated his probation by committing a home invasion robbery, by possessing a firearm, and by associating with persons engaged in criminal activity.

The trial court held a sentencing hearing. Under Florida law the minimum sentence Graham could receive absent a downward departure by the judge was 5 years’ imprisonment. The maximum was life imprisonment. Graham’s attorney requested the minimum non-departure sentence of 5 years. A presentence report prepared by the Florida Department of Corrections recommended that Graham receive an even lower sentence—at most 4 years’ imprisonment. The State recommended that Graham receive 30 years on the armed burglary count and 15 years on the attempted armed robbery count. Stating, “I don’t see where any further juvenile sanctions would be appropriate. I don’t see where any youthful offender sanctions would be appropriate. Given your escalating pattern of criminal conduct, it is apparent to the Court that you have decided that this is the way you are going to live your life and that the only thing I can do now is to try and protect the community from your actions,” the trial court sentenced Graham to life imprisonment for the armed burglary and 15 years for the attempted armed robbery.


In holding that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime, the Court reasoned that juvenile life without parole for non-homicides is cruel and unusual because penological theory does not justify life without parole sentences for juvenile non-homicide offenders; categorically, juvenile offenders have limited culpability; and these sentences themselves are incredibly severe. In a reaffirmance of Roper and the brain science on which it relied in part, the Court added that “No recent data provide reason to reconsider Roper’s holding that because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment. 543 U. S., at 551.” The Court also noted the national consensus against juvenile life without parole for non-homicides, looking beyond the mere number of states that allow such sentences (“Thirty-seven States, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government permit sentences of life without parole for a juvenile non-homicide offender in some circumstances”) to the actual number of instances in which this sentence has been meted out (“Nationwide, there are only 129 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. Because 77 of those offenders are serving sentences imposed in Florida and the other 52 are imprisoned in just 10 States and in the federal system, it appears that only 12 jurisdictions nationwide in fact impose life without parole sentences on juvenile non-homicide offenders, while 26 States and the District of Columbia do not impose them despite apparent statutory authorization”), to determine that these sentences are, in fact, quite rare.

The Court defended its issuance of a categorical rule. The Court found that across the country, states’ rules governing the treatment of youthful offenders allow the imposition of this very severe sentence based on broad discretionary, subjective determination by a judge or jury that the juvenile offender is irredeemably depraved, and so do not adequately prevent the possibility that the offender will receive such a sentence despite a lack of moral culpability. Second, the Court reasoned that a case-by-case approach requiring that the particular offender’s age be weighed against the seriousness of the crime as part of a gross disproportionality inquiry would not allow courts to pick out the few juvenile offenders who are genuinely depraved enough to merit a life without parole sentence from the many that have the capacity for change. Notably, the Court took particular care to describe the specialized skills demanded of juvenile defense counsel, stating, “Nor does such an approach take account of special difficulties encountered by counsel in juvenile representation, given juveniles’ impulsiveness, difficulty thinking in terms of long-term benefits, and reluctance to trust adults.”
Finally, the Court found additional support for the Court’s conclusion in the fact that the sentencing practice at issue has been rejected the world over, as the United States is the only Nation that imposes this type of sentence. The Court’s opinion in Graham is posted on the Supreme Court web site and in the PJDC Resource Bank.

*This sentence was imposed by the State of Florida in two cases, Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida. The Court dismissed the Sullivan case on the grounds that the cert. petition had been improvidently granted.