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March 22, 2017

Tenth Circuit clarifies and emphasizes import and reach of Graham's limit on extreme juve sentences

Yesterday in Budder v. Addison, No. 16-6088 (10th Cir. March 21, 2017) (available here), a Tenth Circuit panel granted habeas relief to a juvenile non-homicide offender sentenced in Oklahoma to serve over 131 years in prison before being eligible for parole. The Budden opinion discusses the Supreme Court's Graham ruling at great length in the course of rejecting Oklahoma's effort to defend a sentence that was not technically "life without parole."  Here are some excerpts from the opinion:  

Despite Oklahoma’s arguments to the contrary, we cannot read the Court’s categorical rule as excluding juvenile offenders who will be imprisoned for life with no hope of release for nonhomicide crimes merely because the state does not label this punishment as “life without parole.”  The Constitution’s protections do not depend upon a legislature’s semantic classifications.  Limiting the Court’s holding by this linguistic distinction would allow states to subvert the requirements of the Constitution by merely sentencing their offenders to terms of 100 years instead of “life.” The Constitution’s protections are not so malleable.

More importantly, the Court did not just hold that it violated the Eighth Amendment to sentence a juvenile nonhomicide offender to life without parole; it held that, when a state imposes a sentence of life on a juvenile nonhomicide offender, it must provide that offender with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”  Id. at 75; see also id. (“[The Eighth Amendment] does prohibit States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”).  Further, the Court explained that its categorical holding was necessary because it would “give[] all juvenile nonhomicide offenders a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 79 (emphasis added).  If the rule announced in Graham is to provide all juvenile offenders such an opportunity, it must be read to apply to all sentences that are of such length that they would remove any possibility of eventual release.  Thus, we conclude, the sentencing practice that was the Court’s focus in Graham was any sentence that denies a juvenile nonhomicide offender a realistic opportunity to obtain release in his or her lifetime, whether or not that sentence bears the specific label “life without parole.” ...

Again, we must emphasize that states may not circumvent the strictures of the Constitution merely by altering the way they structure their charges or sentences.  Just as they may not sentence juvenile nonhomicide offenders to 100 years instead of “life,” they may not take a single offense and slice it into multiple sub offenses in order to avoid Graham’s rule that juvenile offenders who do not commit homicide may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.  When the Court compared the severity of the crime with the severity of the punishment, in light of the characteristics of the offender, it did not look to the state’s definitions or the exact charges brought.  It looked to whether the offender was a juvenile, whether the offender killed or intended to kill the victim, and whether the sentence would deny the offender any realistic opportunity to obtain release.  The Court specifically concluded that, not only was a categorical rule appropriate, it was “necessary,” id. at 75, because a case specific approach “would allow courts to account for factual differences between cases and to impose life without parole sentences for particularly heinous crimes,” id. at 77.  The Court found this approach to pose too great a risk that some juveniles would receive life without parole sentences “despite insufficient culpability.” Id. at 78 (quoting Roper, 543 U.S. at 572–73).  The Court was not convinced “that courts taking a case-by-case proportionality approach could with sufficient accuracy distinguish the few incorrigible juvenile offenders from the many that have the capacity for change.” Id. at 77.  Not only did the Court draw the line at homicide, it structured a categorical rule specifically to prevent the possibility that a sentencing judge would ever impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile who did not commit homicide.  The Eight Amendment prohibits such a sentence, regardless of the severity of nonhomicide crimes a juvenile has committed.

March 22, 2017 at 12:07 PM | Permalink


Just goes to show how bankrupt Graham and Montgomery are. Now a state can't do consecutive sentences? Who knew? I didn't know that the Constitution gave freebies to juvenile criminals.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 22, 2017 12:56:24 PM

Nah I think it means even the judges are tired of the governments habit of taking the same 5 min of an individuals action and applying multiple charges for said action...then when 3 to 5 out of the mess stick suddenly you have a 131 year sentence. Everyone Not a lawyer or a judge knows its illegal maybe the judges are finally catching on...who know

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 23, 2017 2:13:52 AM

"The Eight Amendment prohibits such a sentence, regardless of the severity of nonhomicide crimes a juvenile has committed."

No. The biased, criminal coddling, rent seeking lawyer prohibits such a sentence. It is just the self dealing feeling of reptilian lawyers looking out for the job generating criminal, and intentionally ignoring the past and future victims of the super-predator.

Then, we are now going to have repeated, a time and money wasting hearing for parole every year. A bunch of lawyers will be paid. That the real reason for this ruling.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 23, 2017 8:37:14 AM

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