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The Paradox of Graham v. Florida and the Juvenile Justice System

31 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2012 Last revised: 6 Jul 2012

Aaron Sussman

U.S. District Court for the Central District of California

Date Written: June 28, 2012


On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court in the consolidated cases Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for any juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This holding is the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions establishing that certain sentences are unconstitutional when applied to juveniles primarily because, as the Court put it in Miller and other cases, “children are different.” Of this series of cases, the most significant is the 2010 decision Graham v. Florida, which found life sentences without parole unconstitutional when applied to juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. The Graham Court emphasized that, compared to adults, children have a unique “capacity for change” and thus must be afforded a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” This reasoning raises important questions to which the Court and juvenile justice systems are unlikely to provide an answer — namely, what will influence that “capacity for change” to be in a positive direction and not a negative one, and what must juvenile justice systems do to make the “meaningful opportunity for release” actually meaningful?

This Paper posits that Graham is one of a handful of criminal justice cases that, by their logic and principles taken at face value, should be systemically transformative, but are paradoxically limited by their own transformative potential. In these “paradox cases,” a sharp disjuncture emerges between the Supreme Court’s language and the realities of the criminal justice system, a disjuncture that, in the context of Graham and its progeny, helps preserve the perception of legitimacy but may inhibit even small steps toward improving the conditions and rehabilitative potential of the juvenile justice system.

To resolve the paradox of Graham, I propose looking to an unlikely source of reform — the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act — as providing a tenable path toward reconciling the ambitious language of Graham (and echoed in Miller) with the less hopeful reality for children in the juvenile justice system.

Keywords: juvenile justice, Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, youth, prison, rehabilitation, Plata

Suggested Citation

Sussman, Aaron, The Paradox of Graham v. Florida and the Juvenile Justice System (June 28, 2012). Vermont Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: or

Aaron Sussman (Contact Author)

U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ( email )

Riverside, CA
United States

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