Significant Case Law from courts nationwide
The cases below are organized into the following issue areas:
- Ban on Life Without Parole for All Juveniles
- Application of Graham and Miller to Lengthy and Aggregate Term-of-Year Sentences
- Criteria and Procedures Required for Meaningful Opportunity to Obtain Release
Ban on life without parole for all juveniles
Several state courts have prohibited life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles under their state constitutions.
The Iowa Supreme Court prohibited life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles under the state constitution.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court prohibited life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles under the state constitution.
The Washington Supreme Court has held that the re-imposition of a life-without-parole sentence at a Miller resentencing proceeding, pursuant to the state’s Miller “fix” statute, violates the state’s constitutional provision against cruel punishment.
Application of Graham and Miller to Lengthy and Aggregate Term-of-Year Sentences
State supreme courts across the country have concluded that sentences may violate the Eighth Amendment even if they are not technically labeled “life without parole.” The relevant inquiry is whether the sentence provides a realistic and meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. A sentence that fails to provide an opportunity for release at a meaningful point in time in an individual’s life violates the Eighth Amendment, regardless of whether the sentence is labeled life without parole, life with parole, or a term of years (with or without parole eligibility.) Moreover, numerous courts have extended the protections of Graham and Miller to aggregate term-of-years sentences imposed for multiple crimes, reasoning that the inquiry is offender-focused, not crime-focused, and thus that the sentence should be analyzed in its entirety.
Below are some cases addressing this topic.
The California Supreme Court clarified that a sentence need not exceed life expectancy to deprive a juvenile nonhomicide offender of the requisite meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation, remanding a 50-year and a 58-year sentence for resentencing.
The Missouri Supreme Court has granted relief as to a life-without-parole-for-50-years sentence, explaining that the sentence was “the harshest penalty other than death available under a mandatory sentencing scheme,” and that the jury had no opportunity to consider youth.
The Washington Supreme Court applied Miller to an 80-year aggregate sentence, explaining that Miller applies anytime a juvenile offender might be sentenced to die in prison without a meaningful opportunity for early release based on rehabilitation, whether the sentence is for a single crime or an aggregate sentence for multiple crimes.
New Jersey Supreme Court held that defendants, sentenced to lengthy, aggregate term-of-year periods of incarceration for homicide and nonhomicide crimes, were entitled to resentencing because the sentences at issue were sufficiently lengthy to trigger Miller’s protections
Ohio Supreme Court determined that defendant’s 112-year aggregate sentence for nonhomicide crimes—pursuant to which he would be eligible for release after 77 years, at age 92—violated Graham’s prohibition on juvenile life without parole for nonhomicide offenders because it denied a meaningful chance to demonstrate rehabilitation and obtain release.
Illinois Supreme Court concluded that Miller applies to mandatory term-of-years sentence, imposed for offenses committed during a single course of conduct, that cannot be served in one lifetime (here, a 97-year sentence with earliest possible release after 80 years).
Florida Supreme Court held that Graham applies to lengthy term-of-years sentences, including aggregate sentences, that deprive the juvenile offender of a meaningful opportunity to obtain release.
Connecticut Supreme Court held that juvenile offender sentenced to 100 years in discretionary regime entitled to resentencing because sentencing court did not give “due mitigating weight” to the characteristics and circumstances of youth.
Juvenile offender sentenced to a mandatory 75-year sentence with no parole eligibility for 52.5 years entitled to resentencing under Miller and the Iowa Constitution.
Iowa Supreme Court remanded sentence of 50 years’ incarceration with parole eligibility after 35 years, imposed for nonhomicide crimes, for an individualized sentencing and consideration of youth in line with Miller.
Nevada Supreme Court concluded that Graham applies to lengthy, term-of-year sentences, including aggregate sentences, that are the functional equivalent of life without parole.
Louisiana Supreme Court held that a 99-year sentence without the possibility of parole contravened Graham’s requirement of a meaningful opportunity to obtain release and is illegal (but distinguished aggregate term-of-year sentences).
Juvenile offender ineligible for parole for 45 years entitled to resentencing under Miller; court must weigh the entire sentencing package in light of the mitigating factors of youth.
Criteria and procedures required for meaningful opportunity to obtain release
The U.S. Supreme Court has established that it violates the Eighth Amendment to sentence children convicted of nonhomicide offenses to life without parole. Instead, these children must have a “realistic” and “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
The “vast majority” of children convicted of homicide offenses must also have a meaningful opportunity for release. Life without parole may be imposed under the Eighth Amendment only if the child is “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.”
Numerous courts around the country have concluded that sentences may violate the Eighth Amendment even if they are not technically labeled “life without parole.” The relevant inquiry is whether the sentence provides a realistic and meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.
In determining whether sentences deny a meaningful opportunity for release, courts consider whether the criteria and procedures used by parole boards or similar entities provide a realistic and meaningful chance for release. We discuss some such cases below.
We discuss some such cases below.
A District Court for the Western District of Missouri denied a motion to dismiss a case asserting that Missouri’s parole practices violate the rights of juvenile offenders under the state and federal constitutions, reasoning that the plaintiffs’ allegations, if proven, could permit a finding that the state’s parole practices failed to provide the requisite meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.
A federal district court in Louisiana held that Louisiana’s former “two-step parole procedure” failed to provide a meaningful opportunity for release and, thus, that habeas relief was warranted for a defendant serving a mandatory life sentence under this system.
The Florida Supreme Court held that the application of gain time alone is insufficient to provide a defendant with a meaningful opportunity for early release within his or her natural lifetime.
Diatchenko & Roberio v. Dist. Attorney for Suffolk Dist., 471 Mass. 12 (2015): The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that juveniles serving life sentences are entitled to representation by counsel at their initial parole hearings, access to funding for experts, and limited judicial review of parole board decisions.
North Carolina Supreme Court held that juvenile defendant who received mandatory LWOP sentence was entitled to resentencing under Miller notwithstanding statutory entitlement to discretionary sentence review, because review process did not provide sufficiently meaningful opportunity to reduce severity of sentence.
New York appellate court held that parole boards have a constitutional obligation to consider youth and its attendant characteristics, in relationship to the crime, when making parole release decisions for juveniles sentenced to life in prison in order to guarantee a meaningful opportunity for release.
U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied in part motion to dismiss action challenging constitutionality of Maryland’s parole system as applied to juvenile homicide offenders, finding that plaintiffs had “sufficiently alleged that Maryland’s parole system operates as a system of executive clemency, in which opportunities for release are ‘remote,’ rather than a true parole scheme in which opportunities for release are ‘meaningful’ and ‘realistic’ as required.
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina determined that a sentence of life with parole imposed on a juvenile nonhomicide offender violated the Eighth Amendment because North Carolina’s parole process does not provide a meaningful opportunity for release.
Juvenile non-homicide offender serving life with parole after 25 years alleged that Iowa’s parole system denied him a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation; defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint denied.
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ordered state to create an administrative structure for the purpose of processing and determining the appropriateness of parole for juvenile offenders serving life-without-parole sentences and set forth certain required procedures.