August 01, 2012

Multiple Sentences for Crimes Totaling 89 Years for Juvenile is Constitutional

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Bunch v. Smith, 2012 WL 2608484 (6th Cir.).

Multiple consecutive sentences for several criminal convictions totaling 89 years did not clearly violate the constitutional prohibition against sentencing juveniles to life without parole for nonhomicide offenses as established in Graham v. Florida. Juvenile was not sentenced to life without parole and there was no consensus that practice was cruel or unusual to support expanding Graham.

Juvenile was convicted of multiple charges including rape, robbery, and kidnapping stemming from actions when he was 16 years old. He appealed to the Ohio Court of Appeals and was denied discretionary review by the Ohio Supreme Court. He filed a habeas petition in district court, which also did not find in his favor. He appealed.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held the juvenile’s sentence was constitutional. The juvenile argued his sentence was the functional equivalent of a life sentence contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham v. Florida. Graham held that life without parole for a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide was unconstitutional.

In Graham, the Supreme Court first determined that there was a national consensus “against sentencing juvenile nonhomicide offenders to life without parole,” and that life without parole sentences were unusually harsh on juveniles because they tend to serve more years in prison.

The Sixth Circuit held that the holding in Graham was specific to life without parole sentences. Further, it found that some state courts had found de facto life sentences violated the spirit, if not the letter, of Graham, but others had found they did not.

The Sixth Circuit found the cases were also distinguishable on the facts. The juvenile in Graham was sentenced to life without parole for one nonhomicide offense, while the  the juvenile was sentenced for a dozen offenses, the longest sentence for any one offense being 10 years. Though the juvenile’s sentence could equal a life sentence, there was still a possibility of parole at some point. Adopting the defendant’s position would make it hard to determine what number of years would amount to a functional life sentence since it could vary based on race, gender, or other life expectancy criteria.