In Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution—specifically, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment—prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit a homicide. Graham marks a significant departure from the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence because it categorically bars life sentences for juveniles who are convicted of nonhomicide crimes based on juveniles’ unique amenability to rehabilitation, rather than on the nature of the punishment itself. While Graham’s central holding is ostensibly straightforward, the decision has generated more questions than answers. Courts have split on whether Graham applies to term of years sentences that are materially indistinguishable from life without parole. They have also split on whether the decision’s reasoning supports an invalidation of life without parole sentences for juveniles who are convicted under felony-murder and accomplice-liability theories of criminal liability. Furthermore, the legislative response to Graham has been protracted, and critics continue to question the effectiveness of using state parole boards as the primary mechanism for compliance with Graham given that parole systems are structured to make any opportunity for release virtually unattainable. Despite this uncertainty, Graham has transformative potential in the area of juvenile rights, and advocates should use it to push for additional reform that, until recently, had no solid foundation in Supreme Court precedent.

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