May 19, 2010
APA Brief Cited in Court’s Decision on Juvenile Punishment
Supreme Court draws on psychological literature showing that juveniles are less culpable than adults.
WASHINGTON – In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment forbids punishing a juvenile offender—one under the age of 18 at the time of the crime—who commits a non-homicide offense with life in prison without parole. The holding is consistent with the research and related arguments that APA provided to the Court in its amicus curiae brief in which it was joined by the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and Mental Health America.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy explained that, in the past, the Court had addressed challenges to the proportionality of sentences in two contexts. In the death-penalty context, it had established certain bright lines forbidding imposing the death penalty on certain groups, including juveniles. Outside the death-penalty context, it had always determined whether a particular sentence of an individual defendant was grossly disproportionate to a particular offense, without formulating any categorical rules. In Graham, for the first time, the Court adopted a categorical rule barring a particular prison sentence for a particular group.
The Court based its conclusion that a categorical rule barring life without parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses was required primarily on two previous cases. In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court had held that the death penalty may not be imposed for non-homicide offenses against individuals. And in Roper v. Simmons—a case in which APA filed an important amicus brief laying out the scientific research supporting the Court’s conclusion that juveniles are less culpable than adults—the Court had previously held that the death penalty may not be imposed on juveniles for any crime. The Court followed the analysis laid out in Simmons very closely in Graham.
The Court first held that the paucity of life without parole sentences imposed on juveniles for non-homicide crimes evinced a national consensus against such sentences. It then moved on to consider the culpability of such offenders and the penological goals furthered by the imposition of life without parole in such cases. The Court reaffirmed what it had said in Simmons regarding the culpability of juveniles: that juveniles are less culpable than adults because of their lack of maturity, greater vulnerability to outside influences, and less developed characters; and that there is no reliable way to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime is the product of an irreparably bad character and the offender whose crime is the product of the immaturity characteristic of adolescence itself. These findings were grounded in psychological research and tracked the arguments set out in APA’s amicus briefs in Simmons and in Graham. Once again, the Court relied on an amicus brief filed by the APA to support its conclusion that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”
Observing that life without parole, like the death penalty, is irrevocable, “depriv[ing] the convict of the most basic liberties without giving hope of restoration,” the Court found that it was a particularly harsh penalty for a juvenile. Moreover, the penological justifications for imposing the sentence on juveniles are less forceful: retribution is less warranted due to juveniles’ lesser culpability; deterrence is weaker because of juveniles’ immaturity and lesser ability to foresee consequences; incapacitation is insufficient justification to impose such a harsh sentence on juveniles who have committed non-homicide crimes; and life without parole essentially gives up on rehabilitation altogether, when juveniles have better prospects than adults of being rehabilitated.
The Court expanded on the implications of its holding by explaining that a “State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a non-homicide crime.” What it must do is give juveniles “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The Court left it to the States “to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance” with that rule, but noted that if juvenile offenders truly turn out to be irredeemable, the Constitution does not forbid keeping them imprisoned for life. “It does forbid making the judgment at the outset that these offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 152,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.