WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court expanded restrictions on sentences for crimes committed by juveniles, ruling 6-3 May 24 that they must have a possibility of being released when imprisoned for crimes other than murder.
The same day, the court agreed to take three cases that potentially hold interest for religious organizations: a challenge to an Arizona law that allows a tax credit to be used in religious schools; a death-row prisoner’s appeal to have DNA tested; and another prisoner’s challenge of policies that barred him from religious services in the prison chapel. All three cases will be heard in the term beginning in October.
The ruling in Graham v. Florida opens the possibility of release for prisoners who committed nonhomicide crimes before the age of 18 and who were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, though it does not categorically say they must ever be released.
Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and the federal government currently allow no-parole life imprisonment for some crimes other than homicide, though only a handful of jurisdictions actually have anyone serving such prison sentences. In writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted there are 129 people serving life-without-parole sentences for nonhomicide crimes, 77 of them in Florida and the others scattered among just 10 states.
In 2005, the court struck down the death penalty for those who committed crimes while juveniles, saying, in part, that juveniles lack the maturity and sense of responsibility to be held accountable in the same way as adults.
The same rationale was the basis for the opinion in the case of Terrance Jamar Graham. Graham was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole after being convicted of crimes related to a home invasion robbery committed when he was 17.
Kennedy noted that in Florida, as in some other states, there are no special provisions for sentencing juveniles who are prosecuted as adults.
Under the letter of the law, even a 5-year-old theoretically could receive a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, Kennedy wrote.
“All would concede this to be unrealistic, but the example underscores that the statutory eligibility of a juvenile offender for life without parole does not indicate that the penalty has been endorsed through deliberate, express, and full legislative consideration,” he wrote.
He also wrote that “life without parole is an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile. Under this sentence a juvenile offender will on average serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender. A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only.”
Among those hailing the ruling were the bishops who head the California Catholic Conference’s Restorative Justice Committee.
“Clearly this Supreme Court decision is a good first step toward more just sentencing – sentencing which will offer the offender, the victims and the community a chance for restorative justice,” said Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey and Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles. They urged the state Legislature to respond to the court’s decision by passing the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which would provide the possibility in certain cases for parole for juvenile offenders serving life-without-parole sentences.
Among the cases the court added to its docket for the October term are two others involving prisoners. In Skinner v. Switzer, the court will hear arguments over whether Henry W. Skinner should be allowed to have DNA testing of evidence from the 1993 murders of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons.
At the time of the crime, evidence was not routinely tested for DNA. Skinner maintains that tests could exonerate him.
In another Texas-based case, the court will hear arguments over whether Harvey Sossamon (Sossamon v. Texas) may sue the state for damages under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act for not allowing him access to a prison chapel for religious services.
The court also agreed to take a pair of Arizona cases – Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn and Garriott v. Winn – over the state system that gives a tax credit for donations to schools for scholarships, including at religious schools. The vast majority of the scholarships under the 13-year-old law go to students in church-run institutions.
In a 2009 ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the law unconstitutional because in practice it “carries with it the imprimatur of government endorsement” of religion. The two cases will be heard together.