Graham v. Florida

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Supreme Court of the United States

560 U.S. 48


Certiorari to the District Court of Appeal of Florida, First District

No. 08–7412  Argued: November 9, 2009 --- Decided: May 17, 2010; modified July 6, 2010

Court Documents
Concurring Opinions
Dissenting Opinions


Petitioner Graham was 16 when he committed armed burglary and another crime. Under a plea agreement, the Florida trial court sentenced Graham to probation and withheld adjudication of guilt. Subsequently, the trial court found that Graham had violated the terms of his probation by committing additional crimes. The trial court adjudicated Graham guilty of the earlier charges, revoked his probation, and sentenced him to life in prison for the burglary. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, the life sentence left Graham no possibility of release except executive clemency. He challenged his sentence under the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, but the State First District Court of Appeal affirmed.

Held: The Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime. Pp. 58–82.

(a) Embodied in the cruel and unusual punishments ban is the "precept . . . that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense." Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367. The Court's cases implementing the proportionality standard fall within two general classifications. In cases of the first type, the Court has considered all the circumstances to determine whether the length of a term-of-years sentence is unconstitutionally excessive for a particular defendant's crime. The second classification comprises cases in which the Court has applied certain categorical rules against the death penalty. In a subset of such cases considering the nature of the offense, the Court has concluded that capital punishment is impermissible for nonhomicide crimes against individuals. E.g., Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407, 420. In a second subset, cases turning on the offender's characteristics, the Court has prohibited death for defendants who committed their crimes before age 18, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, or whose intellectual functioning is in a low range, Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304. In cases involving categorical rules, the Court first considers "objective indicia of society's standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice" to determine whether there is a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue. Roper, supra, at 563. Next, looking to "the standards elaborated by controlling prece- [p49] dents and by the Court's own understanding and interpretation of the Eighth Amendment's text, history, meaning, and purpose," Kennedy, supra, at 421, the Court determines in the exercise of its own independent judgment whether the punishment in question violates the Constitution, Roper, supra, at 564. Because this case implicates a particular type of sentence as it applies to an entire class of offenders who have committed a range of crimes, the appropriate analysis is the categorical approach used in Atkins, Roper, and Kennedy. Pp. 58–62.

(b) Application of the foregoing approach convinces the Court that the sentencing practice at issue is unconstitutional. Pp. 62–82.

(1) Six jurisdictions do not allow life without parole sentences for any juvenile offenders. Seven jurisdictions permit life without parole for juvenile offenders, but only for homicide crimes. Thirty-seven States, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government permit sentences of life without parole for a juvenile nonhomicide offender in some circumstances. The State relies on these data to argue that no national consensus against the sentencing practice in question exists. An examination of actual sentencing practices in those jurisdictions that permit life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, however, discloses a consensus against the sentence. Nationwide, there are only 123 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences for nonhomicide crimes. Because 77 of those offenders are serving sentences imposed in Florida and the other 46 are imprisoned in just 10 States, it appears that only 11 jurisdictions nationwide in fact impose life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders, while 26 States, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government do not impose them despite apparent statutory authorization. Given that the statistics reflect nearly all juvenile nonhomicide offenders who have received a life without parole sentence stretching back many years, moreover, it is clear how rare these sentences are, even within the States that do sometimes impose them. While more common in terms of absolute numbers than the sentencing practices in, e.g., Atkins and Enmund v. Florida,  458 U.S. 782, the type of sentence at issue is actually as rare as those other sentencing practices when viewed in proportion to the opportunities for its imposition. The fact that many jurisdictions do not expressly prohibit the sentencing practice at issue is not dispositive because it does not necessarily follow that the legislatures in those jurisdictions have deliberately concluded that such sentences would be appropriate. See Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 826, n. 24, 850. Pp. 62–67.

(2) The inadequacy of penological theory to justify life without parole sentences for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, the limited culpability of such offenders, and the severity of these sentences all lead the Court [p50] to conclude that the sentencing practice at issue is cruel and unusual. 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. Moreover, defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of such punishments than are murderers. E.g., Kennedy, supra. Serious nonhomicide crimes "may be devastating in their harm . . . but 'in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public,' . . . they cannot be compared to murder in their 'severity and irrevocability.'" Id., at 438. Thus, when compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice diminished moral culpability. Age and the nature of the crime each bear on the analysis. As for the punishment, life without parole is "the second most severe penalty permitted by law," Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1001, and is especially harsh for a juvenile offender, who will on average serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender, see, e.g., Roper, supra, at 572. And none of the legitimate goals of penal sanctions—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, see Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 25—is adequate to justify life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders, see, e.g., Roper, 543 U.S., at 571, 573. Because age "18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood," it is the age below which a defendant may not be sentenced to life without parole for a nonhomicide crime. Id., at 574. A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to such an offender, but must impose a sentence that provides some meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. It is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance. Pp. 67–75.

(3) A categorical rule is necessary, given the inadequacy of two alternative approaches to address the relevant constitutional concerns. First, although Florida and other States have made substantial efforts to enact comprehensive rules governing the treatment of youthful offenders, such laws allow the imposition of the type of sentence at issue based only on a discretionary, subjective judgment by a judge or jury that the juvenile offender is irredeemably depraved, and are therefore insufficient to prevent the possibility that the offender will receive such a sentence despite a lack of moral culpability. Second, 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 distinguish with sufficient accuracy the few juvenile offenders having sufficient psychological maturity and depravity to merit a life without parole sentence from the many that have the [p51] capacity for change. Cf. Roper, supra, at 572–573. 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. A categorical rule avoids the risk that, as a result of these difficulties, a court or jury will erroneously conclude that a particular juvenile is sufficiently culpable to deserve life without parole for a nonhomicide. It also gives the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform. Pp. 75–79.

(4) Additional support for the Court's conclusion lies in the fact that the sentencing practice at issue has been rejected the world over: The United States is the only Nation that imposes this type of sentence. While the judgments of other nations and the international community are not dispositive as to the meaning of the Eighth Amendment, the Court has looked abroad to support its independent conclusion that a particular punishment is cruel and unusual. See, e.g., Roper, supra, at 575–578. Pp. 80–82.

982 So. 2d 43, reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 85. ROBERTS, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 86. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined, and in which ALITO, J., joined as to Parts I and III, post, p. 97. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 124.

Bryan S. Gowdy, by appointment of the Court, 558 U.S. 811, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were John S. Mills, Jessie L. Harrell, Drew S. Days III, Brian R. Matsui, Seth M. Galanter, and George C. Harris. Scott D. Makar, Solicitor General of Florida, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Bill McCollum, Attorney General, Louis F. Hubener, Chief Deputy Solicitor General, and Timothy D. Osterhaus, Craig D. Feiser, Courtney Brewer, and Ronald A. Lathan, Deputy Solicitors General.[*]


* ^  Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Bar Association by H. Thomas Wells, Jr., and Lawrence A. Wojcik; for the American Psychological Association et al. by Danielle M. Spinelli, Anne Harkavy, Shirley C. Woodward, Nathalie F. P. Gilfoyle, Richard G. Taranto, Carolyn I. Polowy, and Mark J. Heyrman; for Amnesty Interna- [p52] tional et al. by Constance de la Vega, Michelle T. Leighton, and Neil A. F. Popovic; for the Disability Rights Legal Center by Neil M. Soltman and Donald M. Falk; for Educators et al. by John J. Gibbons, Lawrence S. Lustberg, and Jennifer B. Condon; for Former Juvenile Offender Charles S. Dutton et al. by David W. DeBruin; for the Juvenile Law Center et al. by Marsha L. Levick; for the Mothers Against Murderers Association et al. by Angela C. Vigil, William Lynch Schaller, and Michael A. Pollard; for the Sentencing Project by Matthew M. Shors and Shannon M. Pazur; and for J. Lawrence Aber et al. by Stephen M. Nickelsburg.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Louisiana et al. by James D. "Buddy" Caldwell, Attorney General of Louisiana, and Kyle Duncan, Appellate Chief, by Richard S. Gebelein, Chief Deputy Attorney General of Delaware, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Troy King of Alabama, Gregory F. Zoeller of Indiana, Jack Conway of Kentucky, Michael A. Cox of Michigan, Jim Hood of Mississippi, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Wayne Stenehjem of North Dakota, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Thomas W. Corbett, Jr., of Pennsylvania, Henry D. McMaster of South Carolina, Marty J. Jackley of South Dakota, Robert E. Cooper, Jr., of Tennessee, Greg Abbott of Texas, Mark L. Shurtleff of Utah, William C. Mims of Virginia, Robert M. McKenna of Washington, and Bruce A. Salzburg of Wyoming; for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation by Kent S. Scheidegger; for the National District Attorneys Association by Gene C. Schaerr and Linda T. Coberly; for the Solidarity Center for Law and Justice et al. by James P. Kelly III; and for Sixteen Members of the United States House of Representatives by Michael P. Farris.

Briefs of amici curiae were filed for the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists et al. by Michael B. de Leeuw; for the American Medical Association et al. by E. Joshua Rosenkranz; for the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law by Richard K. Willard and Anthony S. Barkow; for the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence by Anthony T. Caso, Edwin Meese III, and John C. Eastman; for the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators et al. by Corrine A. Irish; for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., et al. by John A. Payton, Debo P. Adegbile, Christina Swarns, Jin Hee Lee, Vincent M. Southerland, Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Robert J. Smith, and Jeffrey L. Fisher; and for the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers et al. by Shannon Lee Goessling.