(CN) – Juvenile offenders can’t be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless they killed someone, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. Life without parole for less severe juvenile crimes is a “grossly disproportionate” sentence that violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments, the justices said in the 6-3 decision.
“This clear line is necessary to prevent the possibility that life without parole sentences will be imposed on juvenile nonhomicide offenders who are not sufficiently culpable to merit that punishment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
He cited three factors that influenced the majority’s opinion: the severity of life without parole, the limited culpability of juvenile offenders and the state’s failure to adequately justify such a harsh sentence in the absence of murder.
“[W]hen compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice diminished moral culpability,” Kennedy wrote.
He said none of the state’s goals for life without parole — retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation — justifies imposing the second most severe sentence for teenagers who have not killed anyone.
“A state is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime,” Kennedy added. “What the state must do, however, is give defendants … some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
He added that “juveniles are more capable of change than are adults,” citing developments in psychology and brain science.
The ruling means that Florida must reinstate the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders like Terrance Jamar Graham, who was sentenced to life in prison for a robbery he committed about a month shy of his 18th birthday. He had already been convicted of attempted robbery when he was 16.
A Florida appeals court upheld Graham’s life sentence, and the state Supreme Court turned down his appeal.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that the majority did not reject life-without-parole sentences as unconstitutional, but simply determined that society no longer accepts the sentence for some juveniles.
“The integrity of our criminal justice system depends on the ability of citizens to stand between the defendant and an outraged public and dispassionately determine his guilt and the proper amount of punishment based on the evidence presented,” Thomas wrote. “That process necessarily admits of human error. But so does the process of judging in which we engage. As between the two, I find far more ‘unacceptable’ that this Court, swayed by studies reflecting the general tendencies of youth, decree that the people of this country are not fit to decide for themselves when the rare case requires different treatment.”
Justice Antonin Scalia joined his dissent.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissent to point out that judges could still sentence someone like Graham to 40 years in prison without parole, so long as it wasn’t a life term.
Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the majority in judgment only — that Graham’s sentence violated the Constitution — but he rejected the court’s “new categorical rule that juveniles may never receive a sentence of life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.” He backed a case-by-case approach instead.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kennedy’s opinion.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, it holds 77 of the 129 juvenile non-homicide offenders serving life sentences, by the majority’s count. The 52 others are imprisoned in 10 states: California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia.
The Supreme Court dismissed a related case, Joe Harris Sullivan v. Florida, as “improvidently granted” because it covered much of the same legal territory. That case involved Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for raping a 72-year-old woman when he was 13.
The justices heard arguments on both cases in November.