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Supreme Court: No Life Sentences for Juveniles Who Haven't Killed

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May 17, 2010

Today, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote that children may not be given a life sentence if they haven’t killed anyone. The court’s ruling says the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, requires that juveniles serving life sentences must at least be considered for release. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The state has denied [Terrance Graham] 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…This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.” In its opinion, the court also discussed the relevance of international law and practice, noting the “global consensus” against life sentences for juveniles who haven’t committed murder, and that “the United States stands alone in a world that has turned its face against life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders.”

Every year in the U.S., children as young as 13 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without any opportunity for release. Today, more than 2,500 juvenile offenders are sentenced to life without parole. Over 100 of those prisoners have been sentenced to life for a crime less serious than killing. Shockingly, there is no other country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole.

The Supreme Court’s historic decision recognizes that it is cruel to pass a final judgment on adolescents, who have an enormous capacity for change and rehabilitation compared to adults. We commend the court’s decision, and are hopeful that today’s ruling will start a national conversation about how we sentence young people, most of whom have no opportunity to escape the negative environments that contribute to crime.

Learn more about the effort to prohibit juvenile life sentences without parole on the ACLU’s site and over at The Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.