Does sentencing a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide to a term-of-years sentence under which he will not be eligible for parole until he is 112 years old violate the Eighth Amendment?
In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that “[t]he Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.” 560 U.S. 48, 82 (2010). While a State need not guarantee a juvenile nonhomicide offender’s eventual release, it may not impose a sentence that “guarantees he will die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release.” Id. at 79.The question in this case is whether States can bypass that rule by sentencing a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide to a term-of-years sentence under which he will not be eligible for parole until he is 112 years old.
The trial judge in Petitioner Bobby Bostic’s case sentenced him to die in prison for two separate robberies he committed on one day when he was 16 years old, telling him at sentencing, “you will die in the Department of Corrections.” Pet. App. 41a. The Missouri Supreme Court holds that this is not a constitutional problem because the Graham rule applies only to “a single sentence of life without parole for a nonhomicide offense,” not to “juveniles who were convicted of multiple nonhomicide offenses and received multiple fixed-term sentences.” But Graham himself committed multiple nonhomicide crimes. And the constitutional flaw in Graham’s sentence was not that it was formally denominated “life in prison without parole,” or that it was imposed for a single act of wrongdoing, but that it “denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society.” Id. That flaw is precisely the same where, as here, a juvenile has been sentenced on multiple counts arising out of a single day’s acts to a term of years intentionally designed to guarantee that he will die in prison. To suggest otherwise would allow states to evade Graham’s central premise whenever a juvenile’s actions support more than one criminal count.