Decision Called “A Significant Victory for Children”
(Montgomery, AL) The U.S. Supreme Court today issued an historic ruling in Graham v. Florida that holds life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses unconstitutional. Terrance Graham, sentenced to life without parole at 17, is now entitled to a resentencing hearing. Dozens of other juveniles sentenced to life without parole are now entitled to relief, including Joe Sullivan, whose case also was argued on this issue.
In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy explained a categorical rule barring life imprisonment without parole sentences “gives all juvenile nonhomicide offenders a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform. The juvenile should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential.”
Discussing Graham’s case, the majority wrote, “[t]he State has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law. This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.”
“This is a significant victory for children. The Court recognized that it is cruel to pass a final judgment on children, who have an enormous capacity for change and rehabilitation compared to adults,” said Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents Joe Sullivan. “I am very encouraged by the Court’s ruling. It’s an important win not only for kids who have been condemned to die in prison but for all children who need additional protection and recognition in the criminal justice system.”
Stevenson noted that many of the people affected by the ruling do not have lawyers and will need effective legal representation for the sentencing hearings that the Court’s ruling now requires. Today’s decision provides juveniles sentenced to life without parole in non-homicide cases an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed but not the right to automatic release.
The Court cited scientific studies showing that the same immaturity and flexibility that make teenagers more susceptible to peer pressure and external influences also make them strong candidates for rehabilitation. The majority wrote, “Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.”
Groups as diverse as the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, the American Bar Association, mental health professionals, victims, clergy, educators, international law scholars, and national child advocacy organizations, along with former juvenile offenders such as U.S Senator Alan Simpson and award-winning actor Charles Dutton, filed amicus briefs supporting the petitioners.
The Equal Justice Initiative is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.