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SCOTUS suggests it might not take much to satisfy Graham’s “meaningful opportunity for release” standard for juveniles serving life

Virginia v. Dennis LeBlanc, USSC No. 16-1177, 2017 WL 2507375 (June 12, 2017), reversing LeBlanc v. Mathena, 841 F.3d 256 (4th Cir. 2016); Scotusblog page (including links to briefs and commentary)

Although this is a per curiam decision and it’s decided under the rubric of federal habeas review, the upshot of this opinion is that states won’t have to do too much to satisfy the requirement under Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 75 (2010), that a state give a juvenile serving life without parole “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on a demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

LeBlanc was sentenced to life without parole for a sexual assault he committed when he was 16. He challenged his sentence under Graham, but the state courts held that Virginia’s “geriatric release” program, which allows a lifer to earn parole if he is over a certain age (60 or 65) and has served a certain number of years (10 and 5, respectively), satisfies Graham. (Slip op. at 1-3). On federal habeas review the Fourth Circuit held the state court’s reasoning was an unreasonable application of Graham because the highly discretionary nature of geriatric release and its failure to require release “based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” mean it was not a meaningful opportunity for release. (Slip op. at 3).

Applying the relentlessly deferential AEDPA standard of review, the Supreme Court holds otherwise:

…. Graham did not decide that a geriatric release program like Virginia’s failed to satisfy the Eighth Amendment because that question was not presented. And it was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham‘s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. The geriatric release program instructs Virginia’s Parole Board to consider factors like the “individual’s history … and the individual’s conduct … during incarceration,” as well as the prisoner’s “inter-personal relationships with staff and inmates” and “[c]hanges in attitude toward self and others.” See 841 F.3d, at 280–281 (Niemeyer, J., dissenting) (citing Virginia Parole Board Policy Manual 2–4 (Oct. 2006)). Consideration of these factors could allow the Parole Board to order a former juvenile offender’s conditional release in light of his or her “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Graham, 560 U.S., at 75. The state court thus did not diverge so far from Graham‘s dictates as to make it “so obvious that … there could be no ‘fairminded disagreement’” about whether the state court’s ruling conflicts with this Court’s case law. White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. ___, ___ [134 S.Ct. 1697, 1706] (2014) …. (Slip op. at 4).

Because this case involves habeas review, the Court expresses no view on the merits of the underlying claim that programs like Virginia’s aren’t good enough to satisfy Graham. (Slip op. at 5). Still, as Michael O’Hear points out, the fact this decision was unanimous can’t help but suggest that Graham may be applied in ways that allow states to provide less than meaningful opportunities for release.

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