Friday, August 12, 2011
In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to sentence a non-homicide juvenile offender to life in prison without parole. While states need not guarantee release to these juvenile offenders, they cannot foreclose such an outcome at the sentencing phase. Scholars have identified several long-term ramifications of Graham, including its likely influence on juvenile sentencing practices and on retributive justice theory. What has yet to be examined are the thorny legal issues raised by Graham that judges and lawmakers need to address in the very short term. To whom does the Graham decision apply? What is the appropriate remedy for those inmates? What affirmative obligations does the Graham decision impose upon the states? These and other pressing questions are before judges and legislators today, and in this Article I endeavor to answer them. In Part I, I briefly describe the Graham opinion and survey what scholars to date have identified as salient aspects of the decision. In Part II, I seek to provide a blueprint for lower courts and legislatures implementing the Graham decision. Specifically, I argue that: 1) Graham is retroactively applicable to all inmates who received a life-without-parole sentence for a non-homicide juvenile crime; 2) those inmates entitled to relief under Graham require effective representation at their resentencing hearings; 3) judges presiding over resentencing hearings should err in favor of rehabilitation over retribution to comport with the spirit of Graham; and 4) long-term legislative and executive action are necessary in order to make the promise of Graham a reality. Finally, in Part III, I situate Graham in the context of our nation’s ongoing criminal justice failings. While the sentence challenged in Graham ought to be viewed as a symptom of such failings, the Graham decision may offer a window of hope for reform on that same front.