Graham v. Florida

The Supreme Court of the United States issued two noteworthy opinions yesterday. In United States v. Comstock (a case that originated out of North Carolina) the Court reversed the Fourth Circuit and upheld the federal government’s power to civilly commit a mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoner beyond the date he would otherwise be released from prison. The opinion will be worth another look: as the News & Observer reports, many such civil commitment proceedings happen in North Carolina on account of the federal prison in Butner. Today’s post, though, looks at the other big case decided yesterday, Graham v. Florida—an important Eighth Amendment decision. In Graham, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment is violated when a judge sentences a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a conviction other than a homicide.

Briefly, the facts. When Terrance Graham was 16 he burglarized a restaurant in Florida. He was arrested and charged as an adult (Florida law allows prosecutors to decide whether to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults or juveniles for most felony crimes). He ultimately pled guilty to armed burglary with assault or battery, a crime punishable by life imprisonment under Florida law, and was placed on probation without an adjudication of guilt (an arrangement that sounds roughly similar to our drug conviction deferral under G.S. 90-96). A short time later Graham committed another crime, this time a home invasion in which he and his accomplices held a homeowner at gunpoint for half an hour while they ransacked the house. He was caught after attempting to flee the police. The court revoked his probation and—notwithstanding the Florida DOC’s presentence recommendation of a 4-year term—sentenced him to life imprisonment. Florida, like North Carolina, has abolished parole, meaning Graham’s only hope of release was executive clemency. He appealed, arguing that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The state appellate court affirmed the sentence.

The Supreme Court reversed. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy wrote that a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a crime other than a homicide is cruel and unusual punishment when the defendant was under 18 at the time of the offense. The Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, Justice Kennedy said, follows one of two paths. The first is a “proportionality review” in which the gravity of the offense is weighed against the severity of the sentence. See, e.g., Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991) (upholding a life without parole sentence for drug possession under a proportionality review); Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2009) (rejecting a proportionality challenge to a 25-year-to-life sentence under California’s three-strikes law for the theft of golf clubs). The second is a “categorical approach” in which an entire sentencing practice is evaluated to see, based on a review of nationwide laws and practices, whether there is a “consensus against the sentencing practice at issue.” The Court has applied the categorical approach several times recently to make capital punishment off limits for defendants who committed their crimes before turning 18, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), for defendants who are mentally retarded, Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), or for defendants convicted of rape where the crime did not result and was not intended to result in the victim’s death, Kennedy v. Louisiana, 544 U.S. __ (2008). The Court determined that the latter approach was appropriate in Graham, for the first time applying the categorical approach to a non–death penalty case.

The Court began with a survey of “objective indicia of national consensus,” concluding that 37 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government all permit sentences of life without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases in some circumstances. That supermajority alone was a sufficient basis for the dissenters (Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito) to conclude that there was no nationwide consensus against the practice. The majority disagreed, noting that with only 129 juvenile non-homicide offenders serving life without parole in the United States (77 of whom are in Florida), the punishment is so rarely used in practice as to demonstrate a consensus against it.  Moreover, Justice Kennedy wrote, the punishment fails to serve any “legitimate penological goals.” Based on their “lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” the Court said, juvenile offenders are less culpable than adults, less likely to be deterred by a harsh consequence, and less apt to be reliably pegged as “incorrigible” at such an early stage in life. With all of these factors in mind (and after a quick comparison to foreign laws and the United Nations Convention on Rights of Children, to the chagrin of the dissenters) the Court concluded that life without parole—the “second most severe penalty permitted by law”—was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment for a juvenile offender convicted of a crime other than murder.

The Court did not, however, go on to say that Graham (or any of the other 129 offenders mentioned above serving life sentences without parole) necessarily needed to be resentenced. (A fact noted in Lyle Denniston’s Opinion Recap at, available here.) Indeed, the Court said, “[a] State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime.” What is required, however, is that the State “give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Justice Kennedy left to the states the challenge of finding the “means and mechanisms” for compliance with the Court’s new mandate. Slip op. at 24.

I won’t dwell on the non-majority opinions, but there’s a lot to digest in them. Chief Justice Roberts concurred in the judgment that Graham’s sentence was cruel and unusual, but he reached that conclusion through a “narrow proportionality” review—the path not taken by Justice Kennedy and the majority. He deemed Graham’s particular sentence invalid in light of his age and immaturity, but he would have opted to leave open the possibility that some young offender might, someday, deserve life without parole for a nonhomicide offense. The Chief Justice questioned the majority’s concern that a case-by-case approach to proportionality review is “constitutionally insufficient because courts might not be able with sufficient accuracy [to] distinguish the few incorrigible juvenile offenders from the many that have the capacity for change.” True, the Chief allowed, “judges will never have perfect foresight”—but that concern applies in every case.

Justices Thomas’s dissent, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito, criticized the Court’s substitution of its own moral values for those of a majority of state legislatures. If anything, the dissent argued, the nationwide legislative consensus is in favor of laws allowing life without parole for juveniles—notwithstanding that most states have invoked them only rarely. “That a punishment is rarely imposed” he wrote, “demonstrates nothing more than a general consensus that it should be just that—rarely imposed. It is not proof that the punishment is one the Nation abhors.” Justice Thomas also lamented the extension of the Court’s categorical approach to the Eighth Amendment into the realm of noncapital punishment. Along those lines, Justice Alito dissented separately to emphasize that the Court’s holding applies only to sentences of “life without parole,” not to the imposition of term-of-years sentences. He was, perhaps, anticipating an argument that there is no principled difference between a life sentence and a lengthy non-life sentence or series of stacked sentences that will virtually guarantee an offender’s death behind bars.

What is the impact for North Carolina? First, note that none of the 129 offenders mentioned in Graham was sentenced under North Carolina law. There are, however, several statutes in North Carolina that will potentially be affected by the Court’s ruling—many of you may have already seen them in Bob Farb’s summary of the case emailed yesterday. Though the Appendix in Graham cited G.S. 15A-1340.16B(a) (life imprisonment without parole for a second or subsequent Class B1 felony conviction when committed against victim who was thirteen years old or younger at time of the offense) as North Carolina’s only nonhomicide crime allowing life without parole, Bob correctly points out that G.S. 15A-1340.17(c) (life imprisonment without parole for a defendant sentenced for Class B1 felony in the aggravated range for Prior Record Level V or VI), G.S. 14-7.12 (violent habitual felons), and G.S. 14-288.22(a) (life imprisonment without parole for injuring another by using nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon of mass destruction), would also be covered—even if it is highly unlikely that a defendant under age 18 would have the prior record necessary to be sentenced to life without parole for all but the weapon of mass destruction crime.

There are at least two ways to bring North Carolina law into compliance with the Court’s holding in Graham. One is to write separate, non-life sentencing provisions for the crimes listed above for defendants who are under 18 at the time of their offense. Another, of course, would be to retain life imprisonment as a sentencing option, but to allow for some form of parole review. We don’t yet know how soon after sentencing that review must take place to be “meaningful” within the Court’s opinion in Graham, but it must give the offender “some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.” Slip op. at 32.

I’ve gone on too long already. If you’re interested in reading more, a number of other commentators are covering the case extensively. I mentioned SCOTUSblog already, and, as usual, Sentencing Law & Policy has some excellent food for thought. Crime & Consequences has a critical review. As always, we welcome your comments.

3 thoughts on “Graham v. Florida”

  1. Jeff: I am going to forward your blog on Graham v. Florida to John Madler at the Sentencing Commission. I am sure we will need to be in contact on this to recommend something to the legislature. Thanks for your good work.


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