Monday, May 17, 2010

Great News, But....

The Supreme Court has ruled that teenagers may not be locked up for life without chance of parole if they haven't killed anyone.

By a 6-3 vote Monday, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.


This is good news in the effort to roll back draconian punishments. The bad news is that it was a split decision (5-4, Justice Roberts concurring opinion technically makes it 6-3) and Justice Thomas proclaims his usual naivete about how state legislatures (especially in Idaho) pass sentencing legislation. The biggest problem area is that states will now impose excessively long sentences (50 years or more), which are, in effect, life sentences) in order to circumvent this ruling.

More work needs to be done. Today's ruling only applies to crimes that do not involve death. The U.S. has more juveniles serving life sentences than any other nation. It is going to take a while to reverse this excess.

But at least the U.S. is no longer the only country to imprison for life juveniles who do not commit murder. That ignoble status should be sufficient evidence regarding the proportionality of our punishments compared to a majority of the world. 

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