Monday, May 17, 2010

LWOP Abolished for Juvenile Offenders in Nonhomicide Cases

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court released its opinion in Graham v. Florida, wherein it held:
The [Cruel and Unusual Punishment] Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime.
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined.  Chief Justice Roberts concurred.

Writing for Justices Scalia and Alito (in part), Justice Thomas stated is his dissenting opinion:
     The Court holds today that it is “grossly disproportionate” and hence unconstitutional for any judge or jury to impose a sentence of life without parole on an offender less than 18 years old, unless he has committed a homicide.  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. Congress, the District of Columbia, and 37 States (but not Texas!) allow judges and juries to consider this sentencing practice in juvenile nonhomicide cases, and those judges and juries have decided to use it in the very worst cases they have encountered.
He goes on to state:
     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.
This opinion should not make much as a ripple in Texas law, however, becuase Texas does not allow LWOP for any juvenile offense, having abolished LWOP for juvenile capital murder last year.  Even so, it's a big case for 37 other states out there.