EJI Wins Ruling in Virginia That Juveniles Must Be Given a Meaningful Opportunity for Release


Last week, EJI won a ruling that requires new sentences for children who were condemned to die in prison for nonhomicide offenses in Virginia.

In LeBlanc v. Mathena, a federal court vacated the life without parole sentence imposed on Dennis LeBlanc for nonhomicide offenses he committed when he was sixteen because the sentence does not provide a “meaningful opportunity for release” as required by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida.

The Court in Graham held that it is unconstitutional to impose a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide and required that life sentences must include a realistic and meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

In 2011, the Virginia Supreme Court held that Graham did not apply in Virginia because the state provides a possibility of conditional release for prisoners who have reached at least age sixty under a “geriatric release” program.

The federal court rejected Virginia’s reliance on geriatric release to fulfill Graham‘s mandate because it “is a misapplication of the governing legal principle of Graham–that children are different and warrant special consideration in sentencing.”

The only way that Virginia’s scheme treats children differently than adults is to treat children worse, the court observed. “In reality, children are receiving harsher sentences than adults: they are subjected to life terms of imprisonment without the possibility of parole like adults, and they must serve a larger percentage of their sentence than adults do before eligibility to apply for geriatric release occurs.”

Moreover, Graham struck down death-in-prison sentences because they deny juvenile offenders any hope of release, even if they show maturity and rehabilitation. “The Supreme Court has recognized that nonhomicide juvenile offenders serving life sentences must be given ‘the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential,'” the court recognized in LeBlanc.

“The distant and minute chance at geriatric release at a time when the offender has no realistic opportunity to truly reenter society or have any meaningful life outside of prison deprives the offender of hope. Without hope, these juvenile offenders are being discarded in cages and left to abject despair rather than with any meaningful reason to develop their human worth. This result falls far short of the hallmarks of compassion, mercy and fairness rooted in this nation’s commitment to justice.”

The court ordered that Mr. LeBlanc be resentenced and ruled that he may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or to a lengthy term-of-years sentence that is effectively the same as life without parole.