Monday, May 17, 2010
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision today that sentences of life without possibility of parole for crimes other than homicide that were committed when the offender was under the age of 18 are unconstitutional.
Graham v. Florida involved an armed burglary conviction in Florida. The majority of the Court ruled that life sentences without the possibility of parole in such cases violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Other countries (such as Mexico, for example) believe that life sentences without the possibility of parole violate human rights norms because they deny any hope of rehabilitation of the detained person.
The majority cited international law sources in support of its decision, but took special efforts to emphasize what has sometimes only been implicit in earlier rulings -- that interpretations of the U.S. Constitution are never compelled by foreign or international law sources. Here is what the Court said (which you can find in the part of the opinion starting on page 29):
There is support for our conclusion in the fact that, in continuing to impose life without parole sentences on juveniles who did not commit homicide, the United States adheres to a sentencing practice rejected the world over. This observation does not control our decision. The judgments of other nations and the international community are not dispositive as to the meaning of the Eighth Amendment [which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment]. But "[t]he climate of international opinion concerning the acceptability of a particular punishment is also 'not irrelevant.'" [Citations omitted]
Today we continue that longstanding practice in noting the global consensus against the sentencing practice in question. A recent study concluded that only 11 nations authorize life without parole for juvenile offenders under any circumstances; and only 2 of them, the United States and Israel, ever impose the punishment in practice. [Citation omitted] . . .