They're Just Kids

By Emily Bazelon

Appearing before the Supreme Court, a lawyer with a client on death row will almost always use the “death is different” argument—that, because capital punishment is irrevocable, people sentenced to die deserve extra protection from the law. After today, thanks to a new Supreme Court decision, lawyers with clients under 18 sentenced to life without parole—and surely other harsh punishments—will argue that juveniles are different, too.

In a majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled Monday that under the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment, states may no longer sentence juveniles to life without parole. The decision came in the case of Terrance Graham, who was already serving probation for robbery when, at age 17, he went into a house with two 20-year-old men and robbed a man at gunpoint. The court’s 6-to-3 decision makes it seem as if striking down the sentence of life without parole—for Graham and all the offenders like him—was relatively easy. With Kennedy, at first glance, is Chief Justice John Roberts, along with the court’s four liberal-moderates: Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and John Paul Stevens.