The decision prohibited life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in cases that did not involve murder.
Terrance Graham was 16 when he and three other teens tried to rob a barbecue restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. One of Graham’s accomplices hit the manager over the head with a metal bar, requiring several stitches. No money was taken in the 2003 incident. Graham pleaded guilty to armed burglary with assault or battery, and in a letter to the trial court he wrote, “This is my first and last time getting in trouble.” Graham received probation and was ordered to spend a year of it in the county jail. He was released in June 2004.
That December, Graham, then 17, and two 20-year-olds were arrested for an armed home invasion and robbery. Graham was found to have violated his probation and sentenced to life imprisonment. Since Florida has no parole, Graham’s only option for release would have been executive clemency.
In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole for a crime that doesn’t involve murder is unconstitutional. “The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” wrote Justice Kennedy.
In 2012, Graham was resentenced to 25 years in prison. Depending on his behavior, he could be eligible for release as early as 2026, according to his attorney, Bryan Gowdy.
LOCKED UP FOR LIFE
Decades ago in the tough-on-crime ‘80s and ‘90s, many states — stoked by fears of teen “superpredators” — enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults. The U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for homicide and, sometimes, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery.
There has since been a shift. Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Then last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get an opportunity chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.
The January 2016 ruling set the stage for an unprecedented second look at hundreds and hundreds of cases, some many decades old now, in courtrooms across America. The Associated Press leveraged its reporting power in all 50 states to examine how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are now revisiting juvenile lifer cases. Many have been resentenced and released, with more hearings continuing in the days, weeks and months ahead. But in some states, officials have delayed review of cases or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.