WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court said Monday that Florida and 36 other states that permitted it can't sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes.
In a much-anticipated decision, five of the court's nine justices agreed that the rigid life sentences for juveniles violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court's majority reasoned that sentences should be calibrated to fit juveniles' diminished "moral culpability."
"None of the goals of penal sanctions that have been recognized as legitimate — retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation — provides an adequate justification," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Kennedy, for instance, reasoned that juvenile offenders' inherent intellectual immaturity and poor impulse control means the fear of a future punishment won't be a significant deterrent.
The decision Monday continues the court's recent paring away of the punishments allowable for juvenile offenders. Five years ago, in another closely divided decision also written by Kennedy, the court prohibited the death penalty for offenses committed by someone younger than 18.
The ruling in the most recent case — which involves convicted Jacksonville, Fla., burglar Terrance Jamar Graham — affects California, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington and the other states whose statutes permit the life sentences for juveniles. Florida will face the biggest impact, though.
Of 129 juvenile offenders who are serving sentences of life without parole for non-homicide crimes, 77 are in Florida. The court concluded that the very infrequency of the sentence is evidence that it may violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
"Life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes is as rare as other sentencing practices found to be cruel and unusual," Kennedy wrote.
The ruling doesn't affect more than 2,000 inmates who are serving life sentences without parole for homicides committed while they were juveniles. Individual inmates, moreover, still will have to make their cases for release from prison.
In a move that's likely to inflame some of his most conservative critics further, Kennedy cited international opinion and practice. The United States, he said, is one of only 11 nations worldwide to authorize life without parole for juvenile offenders.
Kennedy's previous invocations of international legal practice have draw fire for supposedly undermining U.S. legal sovereignty, and 16 conservative members of the House of Representatives, including Florida Republican Gus Bilrakis, filed an amicus brief urging the court to shun the "increasing influence of international organizations."
Kennedy, though, stressed Monday that his latest survey of the "global consensus" doesn't control the Supreme Court's decision.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. joined Kennedy and Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Sonia Sotomayor in concluding that the sentence imposed on Graham was unconstitutional. Roberts, though, voted against striking down all the state laws, saying he'd have confined the ruling to Graham's case.
"Some crimes are so heinous, and some juvenile offenders so highly culpable, that a sentence of life without parole may be entirely justified under the Constitution," Roberts wrote.
Roberts contrasted, for instance, Graham with the recent case of Milagro Cunningham.
Graham had a horrific upbringing, as the son of crack cocaine addicts. At age 16, he placed on probation for attempting to rob a barbecue restaurant in 2003. Six months later, he was arrested again after a home invasion robbery, and a trial judge sentenced him to life.
Cunningham, by contrast, raped and beat an 8-year-old girl and then left her to die in a remote landfill. Roberts' view was that states should remain free to punish crimes that are so horrible with the utmost severity, a view shared by the three conservative justices who dissented entirely.
"The question of what acts are 'deserving' of what punishments is bound so tightly with questions of morality and social conditions as to make it, almost by definition, a question for legislative resolution," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for himself and fellow dissenters Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.
The court declined Monday to issue a ruling in a second Florida case that had been argued, involving the punishment imposed on convicted teenage rapist Joe Harris Sullivan.
In a separate ruling Monday, the court upheld a federal statute permitting the indefinite civil incarceration of mentally ill sexual predators beyond the expiration of their prison sentences. The court had previously upheld similar statutes enacted by states.