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Supreme Court puts limits on life sentences for juveniles

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In invalidating the sentence of a Florida man convicted at age 17, the majority justices applied the same constitutional reasoning used in a 2005 decision in which the high court ruled 5 to 4 that imposing the death penalty on juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment. The key fifth vote in the 2005 case was cast by Justice Kennedy.

Monday’s decision comes in a case called Graham v. Florida. Terrance Graham was sentenced to life without parole by a Florida state judge after Mr. Graham violated his probation for an earlier offense and committed a series of violent, armed home invasion robberies. Graham pleaded guilty. He was 17.

Florida officials defended the life sentence as reflective of a balance struck by state lawmakers and Florida judges.

The majority justices disagreed. “Terrance Graham’s sentence guarantees he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release, no matter what he might do to demonstrate that the bad acts he committed as a teenager are not representative of his true character, even if he spends the next half century attempting to atone for his crimes and learn from his mistakes,” Kennedy wrote.

“The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” Kennedy said.

The high court ruling makes clear that states retain the ability to imprison the worst juvenile offenders for the rest of their lives. The point of the ruling is that even the worst juvenile offenders must be given an opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

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