Supreme Court Rules on Life Terms for Juveniles

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Last Updated 12:39 p.m. ET

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teenagers may not be locked up in prison for life with no chance of parole if they have not killed anyone.

By a 6-3 vote Monday, the court said the U.S. Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham was on probation for robbery when he broke into a home and committed another robbery just before his 18th birthday. Although he was eligible for a minimum 5-year sentence, the judge sentenced him to the maximum of life, saying he was a threat to society and had made a conscious decision to throw his life away.

Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide, and where parole had been abolished. [A juvenile sentenced to life in Florida may only be released by an executive order granting clemency.]

"The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. "This the Eighth Amendment does not permit."

Kennedy's opinion estimates that there are currently 129 non-homicide offenders sentenced as juveniles to life without parole in the U.S. Almost two-thirds - 77 - are in Florida. The remaining are in 10 states (California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia) or in federal facilities.

"The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of nonhomicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society," the court said.

Kennedy said juveniles "lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility," and that for them, a life sentence actually translates into a far harsher sentence than an adult would receive for a comparable crime.

Kennedy wrote that Florida acknowledged at oral arguments that "even a 5-year-old, theoretically, could receive such a sentence under the letter of the law. . . . All would concede this to be unrealistic, but the example underscores that the statutory eligibility of a juvenile offender for life without parole does not indicate that the penalty has been endorsed through deliberate, express, and full legislative consideration."

Today's decision also notes that such life sentences for juveniles have been rejected by every other nation.

Left unanswered, said CBS News legal correspondent Jan Crawford, is the question about life sentences for juveniles who do commit murder.

The Court had already struck down the death penalty for juvenile killers in 2005.

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the outcome, but wrote a separate, more narrow opinion, saying he would not necessarily outlaw juvenile life sentences in extreme and brutal cases, such as those involving rape.

Dissenting from today's opinion were Justices Thomas, Scalia and Alito.

On sentencing underage nonhomicide offenders Justice Thomas wrote, "Although the text of the Constitution is silent regarding the permissibility of this sentencing practice, and although it would not have offended the standards that prevailed at the founding, the Court insists that the standards of American society have evolved such that the Constitution now requires its prohibition. The news of this evolution will, I think, come as a surprise to the American people."

Writing that such sentences are allowed by 37 States, the District of Columbia and the federal government, Thomas said the Court's decision amounts to rejecting "the judgments of those legislatures, judges, and juries regarding what the Court describes as the 'moral' question of whether this sentence can ever be 'proportionat[e]' when applied to the category of offenders at issue here.

"I am unwilling to assume that we, as members of this Court, are any more capable of making such moral judgments than our fellow citizens. Nothing in our training as judges qualifies us for that task, and nothing in Article III gives us that authority.

"I agree with Justice Stevens that '[w]e learn, sometimes, from our mistakes.' Perhaps one day the Court will learn from this one," Thomas concluded.

The case, Graham v. Florida, was similar to another argued before the court, Sullivan v. Florida, in which a 13-year-old boy was convicted for taking part in a burglary and sexual assault. Attempts by the prisoner to have his case reheard were scuttled when it was discovered DNA evidence had been destroyed. The court today dismissed the writ of certiorari in Sullivan as improvidently granted.

Also today, the Court:

• Upheld a federal law that allows . That decision was by Justice Breyer, with Thomas and Scalia in dissent.

• Sided with a British man in an international custody dispute that arose after his wife moved with their son from Chile to Texas without his consent. The Court said the Hague Convention conferred a custody right in such cases, and a court could order the child's return to Chile. Justice Kennedy also wrote that decision, with Justices Stevens, Thomas and Breyer in dissent.
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