Juvenile Sentencing and the Eighth Amendment

>> Friday, November 06, 2009

Lithwick does a good job of summarizing the issues surrounding upcoming oral arguments about whether the 8th Amendment proscribes life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, but one set of facts under consideration raises another set of questions:

Terrance Jamar Graham tried to rob a restaurant with two accomplices. He was charged as an adult and pled guilty. When he violated probation, Graham was sentenced, without trial, to life without parole. He was 17. In both cases the sentencing judges were certain these boys were beyond hope or help.

Even if Graham was 22, it would seem to me that the sentence could be plausibly argued to be disproportionate even under the Supreme Court's excessively narrow standards in Ewing (which still prohibits sentences that are "grossly disproportionate to the crime.") Florida's case looks a little stronger given that the parole violation Graham was accused of was an armed home invasion robbery, but giving him a life sentence on that basis should raise grave due process concerns. If Florida wants to sentence him based on the home invasion, it should prove that he committed the crime in a fair trial (or adduce a plea, which would presumably involve a lesser sentence.) As of now, Graham is getting life-without-parole sentence at a young age for a single robbery charge and a parole violation, which shouldn't be permitted under the 8th Amendment even if he was a little older.

The other thing to note here is the extreme nature of the cases under review (the other case involves a 13 year-old convicted -- on pretty flimsy evidence -- of a serious, but lesser than homicide, violent crime and receive l-w-p) raises the stakes considerably. One the one hand, they make it more likely that Anthony Kennedy's sporadic conscience will be shocked. On the other hand, if the Court upholds the convictions it would essentially send the message that states have almost unlimited authority to give draconian sentences to juveniles as long as they're not actually sentenced to death.


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