The Supreme Court on Monday narrowed the circumstances in which youths can be sentenced to life in prison, saying the crimes must involve murder. The case involved a defendant, Terrance Graham, who was sentenced to life in prison after a robbery conviction at age 16 and a home invasion at age 17 that violated his parole.
While many legal advocacy groups have hailed the decision, some have warned that it might prompt a wave of appeals, clogging the legal system. Juvenile prisoners could see sentences which, while not life sentences, add up to decades in prison, and may be just as “cruel and unusual.”
Here are five things you need to know about the case, its context and its consequences:
- Graham v. Florida comes five years after another landmark Supreme Court decision regarding young offenders. In Roper v. Simmons, the Court ruled that the death penalty for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the Court’s swing vote, sided with the majority and, in both cases, wrote the majority opinion.
- There are only eight states with young offenders serving life sentences for crimes that do not involve murder. Florida, where the Graham case originated, accounts for 70 percent of these inmates.
- A 2009 report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International stated that 2,574 inmates currently sentenced to life without parole in the U.S. were minors when they committed their crimes.
- Although he sided with the majority in the specific case of Terrance Graham, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the majority opinion, which banned life without parole for all non-homicide youth offenders. Roberts wrote:
Our existing precedent already provides a sufficient framework for assessing the concerns outlined by the majority. Not every juvenile receiving a life sentence will prevail under this approach. Not every juvenile should. But all will receive the protection that the Eighth Amendment requires.
- Equally troubling is the growing number of youth inmates who suffer from mental illness. Many states have cut mental health programs and depend on correctional facilities to provide meager treatment. The New York Times reported last year that two-thirds of the nation’s juvenile inmates have been diagnosed with at least one mental illness.