Cruel and Unusual Parole

Note - Volume 95 - Issue 3

In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court categorically barred life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants convicted of nonhomicide crimes, holding that such juvenile defendants must have “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Litigation is now testing whether Graham has created a new constitutional rule for the procedures and decisions of state parole systems. This Note analyzes that new litigation in view of the history of parole and the preexisting standards for due process claims against parole boards. This Note also considers competing interpretations of Graham and the claims against parole boards that each interpretation would produce. If life without parole is unconstitutionally severe for depriving prisoners of hope, the fairness of parole release determinations should be the focus of constitutional litigation. But if it is unconstitutionally severe for undermining their personal development, the availability of prison rehabilitative opportunities also becomes significant. Prisoners’ claims thus far have concentrated on the fairness of parole systems’ procedures and decisions, rather than on the availability of rehabilitative opportunities, and this Note concludes that Graham will likely give rise only to the former and not the latter. In addition, this Note suggests adapting the standard procedural due process framework to the task of evaluating Graham parole claims. Finally, it considers whether other categories of prisoners may be able to bring analogous parole claims in the future.

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