The U.S. Supreme Court, which has in recent years been overwhelming conservative in its decisions, showed signs of humanity when it ruled that juvenile offenders under 17 could no longer be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that didn’t result in a death.


Calling such sentences cruel and unusual punishment, and in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, the justices ruled 6-3 in favor of putting an end to judicial punishments that give offenders no hope of a life after prison. Even Chief Justice John Roberts, a notorious conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, ruled on the side of what’s fair and decent.

At the heart of the decision was the case of Terrance Graham who, at 17, was already on parole when he broke into a home and robbed the owners by gunpoint. To be fair, it seems that Graham, now in his early 20s, didn’t learn from his first crime and stint in jail. However, a life sentence without the possibility of parole for someone so young in a case where no one was killed seems especially harsh.

Currently, 37 states and D.C. support a life sentence without parole for juveniles in crimes that don’t involve a death. Now, as a result of the court’s decision, those local practices must change. There are currently 129 juvenile offenders sentenced under such laws in the U.S.; more than half of them are in Florida, a state known for its tough sentencing laws. At their core, judges across the country must have realized that handing down such a punishment in these types of cases was unjust and, though it was legally acceptable, decided to go another route.

With their ruling, the court does not excuse the Grahams of the world. Rather, it asks that judges act fairly—and humanely—when handing down sentences. This decision is a step toward fair sentencing practices that could give offenders, with the aid of rehabilitation, hope of a life after prison. Since America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, this is a step our country needed to take.

(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of RainbowPUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)

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