Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Life Sentences Invalidates Laws in 37 States and Federal Government

Saying that life sentences for juveniles who don't kill anyone "means a denial of hope," the Supreme Court today struck them down as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

The 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy will affect 129 juveniles serving life sentences without parole -- 77 of them in Florida -- and invalidate laws of 37 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government.

But in his opinion, Kennedy said the practice is "exceedingly rare" and that "a national consensus has developed against it." He noted that currently 11 only states and the federal government have juveniles serving life without parole.

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.

"A life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity," Kennedy wrote.

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

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a sharp dissent, saying Kennedy's assertion that there was a national consensus against juvenile life sentences "will, I think, come as a surprise to the American people" and the 37 states that allow the practice.

"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," Thomas wrote in dissent, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

The case involved a 17-year-old Florida boy, Terrance Graham, who 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.

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.