Review for Release: Juvenile Offenders, State Parole Practices, and the Eighth Amendment
Sarah French Russell
Quinnipiac University School of Law
January 1, 2014
Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 89, No. 1, 2014
State parole boards have historically operated free from constitutional constraints when making decisions about whether to release prisoners. Recent Supreme Court decisions subject states to a new constitutional requirement to provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” for at least some categories of juvenile offenders. Using original data collected through a survey, this Article provides the first comprehensive description of existing parole board release procedures nationwide and explores whether these practices comply with the Court's Eighth Amendment mandate.
The Court's recent decisions in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama prohibit sentences of life without the possibility of release (LWOP) for juvenile offenders in nonhomicide cases and forbid mandatory LWOP sentences in homicide cases. States must now provide nonhomicide juvenile offenders with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” and give judges the option of imposing a sentence with the chance of release on homicide offenders. Around the country, state courts, legislatures, and governors have started to respond to Graham and Miller. Yet there is little scholarship focusing on a central issue raised by these cases: What constitutes a meaningful opportunity to obtain release under the Eighth Amendment? The Court has declined to provide detailed guidance on the matter, stating that “[i]t is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance.”
Viewed in the context of the Court's earlier Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, the meaningful opportunity for release requirement appears to encompass three distinct components: (1) a chance of release at a meaningful point in time, (2) a realistic likelihood of release for the rehabilitated, and (3) a meaningful opportunity to be heard. For the most part, states have responded to Graham and Miller by making juvenile offenders eligible for release under existing and long-standing parole board procedures. To date, the debate in the states has focused primarily on the first component of the meaningful opportunity requirement-when a juvenile offender should be eligible for release. Most states have paid little attention to whether existing parole board practices satisfy the other two components of the meaningful opportunity requirement. These practices, which were designed for a different purpose, may not offer a realistic chance of release and meaningful hearings for juvenile offenders.
Parole procedures in every state are different, and many parole boards operate under unwritten and unpublished rules. To understand existing practices, I sent a survey to every parole board in the country. The survey results revealed procedures that, while adequate for adult offenders, may not survive Eighth Amendment scrutiny when applied to juvenile offenders under Graham and Miller. Such procedures include (1) preventing prisoners from appearing before decision makers, (2) denying prisoners the right to see and rebut evidence, and (3) limiting the role of counsel. I conclude that some states may not be able to rely on their existing parole board practices to provide a meaningful opportunity for release, and may need to craft special rules for considering release of juvenile offenders serving lengthy sentences.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 68
Keywords: Eighth Amendment; Sentencing; Juveniles; Constitutional Law; Criminal Procedure
Date posted: January 19, 2014