Local Voice: Do not throw away the key

By Jermaine A. Wyrick

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. In a seminal case, Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367 (1910), the court held, “embodied in the cruel and unusual punishments ban is the precept...that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to the offense.” In Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. (2008), the court held capital punishment is impermissible for non-homicide crimes against individuals.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Terrance Graham, a 23-year-old Florida prisoner who committed armed robberies at the ages of 16 and 17. In Graham v. Florida, (2010) the court held that minors serving life sentences, for non-homicide crimes, must at least be considered for release. The court reasoned, “Serious non-homicide crimes may be devastating in their harm, but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public...they cannot be compared to murder in their ‘severity and irrevocability.’” Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion for the court wrote, “The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law.” This decision follows the 2005 decision of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 that abolished the death penalty for minors. There is a distinction between the punitive measures of the criminal justice system for adults, versus the rehabilitative nature of the justice system for juveniles. Differences are based upon the fact that juveniles are viewed as lacking judgment of adults, and in the words of the court, have “twice diminished moral culpability,” and lack “sufficient psychological maturity and depravity.” The court ruled, “Because age 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood, it is the age below which a defendant may not be sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime.” Id., at 574. The court stated, “none of the legitimate goals of penal sanctions – retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, see Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 25 – is adequate to justify life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders, see, e.g. Roper, 543 U.S., at 571, 573.

According to a Florida State University study, there are 129 inmates in the United States that are currently serving life sentences without parole terms for non-homicide crimes in 11 states – Florida, California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia. The decision raises the question of what will be appropriate sentences for juveniles that are convicted of serious crimes. The Graham decision will not affect the State of Michigan, that has a juvenile lifer law only for homicide cases, which allows judges to give minors as young as 14, the maximum adult penalty.

Chief Justice John Roberts, while concurring, opposed applying the court’s ruling to all young offenders who are incarcerated for crimes other than murder. Justice Samuel Alito dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, criticized the majority opinion for imposing, “its own sense of morality and retributive justice,” on state lawmakers and voters who chose to give state judges the option of life-without parole sentences. Justice Thomas stated, “I am unwilling to assume that we, as members of this court, are any more capable of making such moral judgments than our fellow citizens.” Conversely, the majority opinion considered “objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice to determine whether there is a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue. Roper, supra, at 563.” Furthermore, “the court determines in the exercise of its own independent judgment whether the punishment in question violates the Constitution, Roper, supra, at 564.” Therefore, locking up juveniles to “throw away the key” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Now they will be afforded the opportunity to rehabilitate in order to become productive members of society, law-abiding citizens.

Attorney Jermaine A. Wyrick can be reached at (313) 964-8950, or by e-mail at Attyjaw1@Ameritech.net. Wyrick is available for speaking engagements on legal topics.


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