There are positive and negative aspects to today’s 6-3 Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile non-homicide offender to life without the possibility of parole.
On the positive side, the Court upheld the constitutionality of life without parole (LWOP) for juvenile killers. Over 90% of juveniles serving LWOP are murderers, so this ruling won’t affect them at all. That means that the 1200 or so juvenile killers serving LWOP got no relief from this case.
Furthermore, states can continue to sentence appropriate juvenile killers to LWOP. The Court clearly recognized that states must be able to incarcerate the worst of the worst for life.
The Court, by implication, adopted The Heritage Foundation’s statistics regarding the number of jurisdictions that allow for juvenile LWOP; 44 states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia. In so doing, the Court soundly rejected the manufactured statistics of the anti-incarceration crowd.
Also, the Court’s ruling allows for life with parole sentences for juveniles convicted of serious non-homicides. Thus, state sentencing schemes do not have to guarantee the convicted offender eventual release; rather, the state only needs to provide him with “some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.”
On the negative side, the Court misread the meaning of the Eighth Amendment, which simply does not speak to this issue. Furthermore, it cites to foreign law to justify its result, and relies on the rarity of juvenile LWOP sentences to strike them down, rather than recognizing that this just means they are imposed judiciously.
As a practical matter, the 140 or so juveniles this affects will be re-sentenced in state courts. Many of those same juveniles will be sentenced, I predict, to long sentences, including life with parole sentences.