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USSC: Except Murder, No Life Sentences Without Parole for Youths

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By Jason Beahm on May 17, 2010 4:30 PM

The Supreme Court ruled today that it is unconstitutional to keep a juvenile offender behind bars permanently for a non-homicide crime committed as a youth. The decision in the case of Graham v. Florida, will impact Terrance Graham as well as over 100 other inmates convicted as youths who are currently serving life sentences for non-homicide crimes.

The Court found that laws in eight states are too harsh and violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, found that a Florida law violated the Eighth Amendment. "A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term."

Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas dissented. Chief Justice Roberts agreed with the outcome in the Graham case, but argued in a separate concurring opinion, that the court made a mistake by creating a new bright-line rule under the Eighth Amendment. "I agree with the Court that Terrance Graham's sentence of life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual" punishments. Unlike the majority, however, I see no need to invent a new constitutional rule of dubious provenance in reaching that conclusion," Roberts said.

The New York Times reported an interview with Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, an expert in sentencing law who said that the decision has further implications. The court's ''ruling likely will produce challenges for lawyers and lower courts to determine just whether and when other extreme prison terms are constitutionally problematic," Berman said.

Read the full opinion here (PDF).

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