In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that a juvenile sentenced to life in prison for a nonhomicide crime must be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” But what makes a release opportunity “meaningful”? The Court’s decision yesterday in Virginia v. LeBlanc suggests that the threshold may not be as high as some hoped.
LeBlanc was convicted of committing a rape when he was 16 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of conventional parole. On the face of it, this would seem a clear violation of Graham. However, in federal habeas proceedings, the state argued that LeBlanc would eventually have his “meaningful opportunity” through a geriatric release program, which permits the release of some inmates who are age sixty or older.
Since many other states also have geriatric release programs, the issue presented by LeBlanc has important, national ramifications for the strength of the Eighth Amendment right recognized in Graham.
A district judge and then a panel of the Fourth Circuit held in LeBlanc’s favor. The Fourth Circuit noted the highly discretionary nature of geriatric release under Virginia law, which effectively permits the releasing authority to disregard an applicant’s “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” contrary to Graham. 841 F.3d 256, 269 (4th Cir. 2016).
Yet, the Supreme Court reversed yesterday in a brief per curiam opinion.
The Court did not purport to decide the issue squarely on the merits, but instead ruled that the Fourth Circuit had not shown the full deference to state court determinations that is required by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. In habeas review, a federal court should not overturn a state court decision unless it is “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.” In deciding that this standard was not satisfied in LeBlanc, the Court emphasized that it held “only that the Virginia trial court’s ruling . . . was not objectively unreasonable in light of this Court’s current case law,” leaving open the possibility that the Court’s case law might some day more clearly preclude Virginia’s approach.
Still, I am surprised that not one justice dissented in support of the Fourth Circuit’s well-reasoned decision. There seems to me a good argument that Virginia’s reliance on geriatric release was indeed unreasonable under Graham. As the Fourth Circuit observed, Graham requires an opportunity to obtain release “based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” but nothing in Virginia’s program requires release on these grounds, no matter how compelling an inmate’s case for maturity and rehabilitation is. Indeed, more than 95% of geriatric release denials in Virginia are based on the severity of the crime, 841 F.3d at 270, which may indicate that the releasing authority pays little attention to what offenders do with themselves during their subsequent years or decades in prison. This would run directly contrary to what had seemed to me the basic thrust of Graham: that kids who commit crimes must be given an opportunity eventually to move beyond the mistakes of their youth.
Taken at its word, Graham seems to insist that states do more than merely provide the formality of a procedure by which juveniles might theoretically obtain release, but that in practice never or only very rarely results in release. The Court’s failure in LeBlanc to consider whether geriatric release in Virginia is such an empty formality will only encourage other states to try to circumvent Graham in similar ways.