Volume 98, Number 1

April 2023

Juvenile Life With(out) Parole

Rachel E. Leslie

Beginning in the late twentieth century, the Supreme Court gradually restricted the
range of punishments that could be imposed on children convicted of crimes. The
seminal cases
Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, and Montgomery v.
Louisiana banned the imposition of mandatory life without parole sentences on
children who were under eighteen at the time of an offense and held that those
juveniles must be given a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on
demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Some courts have extended the logic of
these cases to invalidate life with parole sentences based on extremely long parole
ineligibility periods, but no court has held that the practical unavailability of release
within the current parole system makes any life sentence—regardless of its parole
ineligibility period—functionally equivalent to life without parole.

Building on recent scholarship about the constitutional role of parole release in
juvenile sentencing, this Note points out that the
Graham trilogy creates a substantive
Eighth Amendment right for juveniles to be released upon a showing of
maturity and rehabilitation, not merely a right to be considered for release. This
Note exposes the failure of state parole systems to vindicate this right by systematically
refusing to grant parole to juveniles. Because release on parole is a statistical
improbability for juveniles sentenced to life with parole, this Note concludes that
those sentences are actually unconstitutional sentences of de facto juvenile life
without parole.