Zinzow Law

Supreme Court rulings reshape penalties for young offenders

Among the U.S. Supreme Court’s many rulings on juveniles and crime, several big cases over the last dozen years have narrowed the instances in which those who commit offenses under age 18 can be subject to the harshest penalties. A look at these recent cases:



This decision banned the death penalty for those under the age of 18. Prior to the ruling, 16- and 17-year-olds were eligible for capital punishment in some states.


Christopher Simmons was 17 when he and a friend broke into a woman’s home in Missouri, bound her with duct tape, then threw her off a bridge into a river. Upon conviction, he was sentenced to death. Simmons’ appeals cited his age and other factors.


In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court in 2005 banned the execution of offenders who are younger than 18 when they commit crimes. “When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Citing scientific research, the court determined that adolescent development had to be taken into account, even in violent murders. It was likely, the court said, “that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course, even where the juvenile offender’s objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death.”



The decision prohibited life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in cases that did not involve murder.


Terrance Graham was 16 when he and three other teens tried to rob a barbecue restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. One of Graham’s accomplices hit the manager over the head with a metal bar, requiring several stitches. No money was taken in the 2003 incident. Graham pleaded guilty to armed burglary with assault or battery, and in a letter to the trial court he wrote, “This is my first and last time getting in trouble.” Graham received probation and was ordered to spend a year of it in the county jail. He was released in June 2004.

That December, Graham, then 17, and two 20-year-olds were arrested for an armed home invasion and robbery. Graham was found to have violated his probation and sentenced to life imprisonment. Since Florida has no parole, Graham’s only option for release would have been executive clemency.


In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole for a crime that doesn’t involve murder is unconstitutional. “The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,” wrote Justice Kennedy.

In 2012, Graham was resentenced to 25 years in prison. Depending on his behavior, he could be eligible for release as early as 2026, according to his attorney, Bryan Gowdy.