The United States Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses from being sentenced to life in prison without parole. Many states, however, have habitual offender laws that allow for life sentences without the possibility of parole. In these instances, defendants have multiple prior felony convictions. Thayer Green was one such defendant, who by the age of 17 had two prior felony convictions in addition to his conviction for home invasion, simple robbery, and second-degree battery. All are defined as crimes of violence under Louisiana law. Thayer Green challenged his life sentence, arguing that it was unconstitutional.
The Louisiana Supreme Court in State of Louisiana v. Thayer Green applied the holding and principles of Graham to the instant case and amended his sentence of life without parole by deleting the restriction on parole eligibility. In addition, the court found that under all the facts and circumstances of the case, which include the “defendant’s youth, and the relative harshness of defendant’s sentences as compared to other defendants convicted of harming their romantic partners in domestic disputes, … defendant has presented a substantial possibility that his complaints of an excessive sentence [have] merit.” Therefore, the court remanded the matter to the trial court to “reconsider the corrected sentence after first conducting an evidentiary hearing to allow defendant the opportunity to establish mitigating circumstances … and to articulate reasons if consecutive terms are imposed.”
The trend in states over the last decade has been to presumptively treat those under the age of 18 as juveniles in the criminal justice system. In fact, Louisiana passed a “Raise the Age” bill in 2016 that will change the minimum age to charge someone as an adult from 17 to 18. Essentially, it requires that 17-year-olds be treated presumptively as juveniles rather than adults. Crucially, the law did not affect a district attorney’s option to charge 17-year-olds accused of certain crimes as adults. For example, if a 17-year-old committed a violent crime such as a homicide, rape or armed robbery, they could still be charged as an adult and sent to an adult prison upon conviction. In addition, if they are convicted as adults, their conviction could be used in future cases for sentencing enhancement pursuant to Louisiana’s Habitual Offender Law. However, for lesser crimes such as felony theft or simple drug possession, convicted 17-year-olds are now sent to a juvenile facility rather than an adult prison, a key change that advocates said would help rehabilitate the offender. A full list of crimes eligible for transfer to adult court is prescribed by Louisiana Children’s Code Article 305.
Ultimately, this case was a landmark Eighth Amendment case. Along with the “Raise the Age” bill, Louisiana will almost certainly see a drop in the number of those under the age of 18 being sentenced to life in prison. Unsurprisingly, the Louisiana Supreme Court applied the holding and principles of Graham to the instant case. Specifically, juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole in non-homicidal cases, even in instances where the offender has committed multiple prior felonies. In addition, the court strongly stated that even a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole may be unconstitutionally excessive under the totality of the circumstances of the case.
Ronald Lampard is the Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council.