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Volume 106

Article

The Constitutionalization of Parole: Fulfilling the Promise of Meaningful Review

Alexandra Harrington, Associate Professor of Law and Director, Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic, University of Buffalo School of Law.

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23 Sep 2021

Almost 12,000 people in the United States are serving life sentences for crimes that occurred when they were children. For most of these people, a parole board will determine how long they will actually spend in prison. Recent Supreme Court decisions have endorsed parole as a mechanism to ensure that people who committed crimes as children are serving constitutionally proportionate sentences with a meaningful opportunity for release. Yet, in many states across the country, parole is an opaque process with few guarantees. Parole decisions are considered “acts of grace” often left to the unreviewable discretion of the parole board.

This Article suggests a way to bring the current reality of parole closer to the Court’s promise that parole can render life sentences constitutional. This Article considers how the Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery work to constitutionalize parole and change the conventional understanding of the board’s determination. The Article also details the current standards of judicial review of parole board decisions. Because parole is now operating to make constitutional the sentences of people who were children at the time of the offense, the Eighth Amendment task placed on parole boards’ shoulders necessitates substantive standards for the parole board, as well as judicial scrutiny of the board’s determinations.

The Article proposes two essential reforms: first, a presumption of release on parole for people who were children at the time of the crime, absent a determination by clear and convincing evidence that they have not rehabilitated; and second, independent judicial review of the parole board decision to determine if the evidence supports defeating the presumption that life in prison is disproportionate for the vast majority of people who committed crimes as children.

To read this Article, click here: The Constitutionalization of Parole: Fulfilling the Promise of Meaningful Review.

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