Cruel and usual: a life sentence for a 17-year-old

The United States Supreme Court issued an important opinion last week involving the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Eighth Amendment – in addition to prohibiting excessive bail – prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” Most people are familiar with that prohibition because of the continuing controversy over whether the death penalty is “cruel and unusual.”

But cruel and unusual punishments can also be punishments that are excessively punitive or long, and not in proportion to the crime. In general, the Supreme Court allows a great deal of latitude to states and the Congress to construct their punishment scheme, such that many people think the Federal Sentencing Guidelines have components that many people think of as cruel and excessive. But the Supreme Court has never struck down the guidelines on that basis.

In Florida v. Graham, the Supreme Court last week said that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual prohibition is violated when a judge sentences a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a conviction other than a homicide.

The defendant, Terrance Graham, a 16-year-old, had burglarized a restaurant. He was arrested and charged with a felony, and charged as an adult. He ultimately pled guilty to armed burglary with assault or battery, a crime punishable by life in prison under Florida law, but was placed on probation without an adjudication of guilt (meaning that so long as he stayed out of trouble, the charges would ultimately be dismissed).

Later, before completing this deferral program, he committed another home invasion. The judge ignored the Florida Department of Corrections pre-sentence recommendation of a 4-year prison term and sentenced him to life in prison.

The Supreme Court ruled that the life sentence was cruel and unusual under a proportionality review in which the gravity of the offense is weighed against the severity of the sentence.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.