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May 19, 2016

Implementing Graham and Miller: just what qualifies as a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release"?

This new Marshall Project piece effectively details the enduring challenges that states necessarily face in honoring both the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court's modern Eighth Amendment work limiting LWOP sentences for juveniles.  The piece's full headline highlights its themes:  "When Parole Boards Trump the Supreme Court: The high court has said most kids shouldn't be sentenced to life without parole, but some prisoners' fate are in the hands of politics."  Here is how the piece started (with links from the original):

Almost everyone serving life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles deserves a shot at going home. That’s the thrust of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the fourth and most recent of which was decided this year. Taken together, the high court’s message in these cases is that children are different than adults when it comes to crime and punishment — less culpable for their actions and more amenable to change. As such, court rulings have determined all but the rarest of juvenile lifers are entitled to “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The court left it up to states how to handle this year's new ruling but suggested parole boards were a good choice. “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in January, gives states a way to identify “juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured.” Most states have taken this option, changing juvenile lifers’ sentences en masse from life without to lifewith the possibility of parole.

But prisoner’s rights advocates and attorneys have begun to argue whether parole boards, as they usually operate, may not be capable of providing a meaningful opportunity for release. A handful of courts have agreed.

Last month, a New York state appeals court judge ruled that the state’s parole board had not “met its constitutional obligation” when it denied parole to a man who had killed his girlfriend when he was 16. Dempsey Hawkins is now 54 and has been denied parole nine times in hearings that, the court said, did not adequately weigh what role his youth and immaturity had played in his crime.

Also last month, a group of juvenile lifers in Maryland filed suit, arguing that not a single juvenile lifer had received parole in that state in the last 20 years. “Rather than affording youth a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release…grants of release are exceptionally rare, are governed by no substantive, enforceable standards, and are masked from view by blanket assertions of executive privilege,” the lawsuit says.

Similar suits are proceeding in Iowa, Michigan, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, where a judge heard oral arguments last week.

“There are just two relevant kinds of sentences: those that provide a meaningful opportunity for release and those that don’t,” says Sarah French Russell, a Quinnipiac University law professor who studies juvenile justice. “Sentences that are not technically labeled life without parole can deny a meaningful opportunity for release because of the procedures or criteria used by the parole board.”

A few of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2016 at 09:10 AM | Permalink


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