In a pair of major criminal law decisions on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not allow sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles who committed nonhomicide crimes and upheld a federal law permitting sexually dangerous inmates to be confined beyond their prison terms. In the juvenile case, Graham v. Florida (pdf), the Court said, “A state need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes the sentence of life, it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 6-3 majority, applied the logic of the categorical exceptions to the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded, already created by the Court, to juveniles who commit lesser crimes than homicide. Their age and level of mental development make them less culpable, Kennedy wrote, adding that life without parole “deprives the convict of the most basic liberties without giving hope of restoration.” Kennedy also wrote, “Life without parole is an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile. … A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only.”

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