Federal Court Rules Virginia Juveniles Sentenced to Life in Prison Entitled to Relief


The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled today that because Virginia’s “geriatric parole” program does not give children sentenced to life imprisonment without parole a “meaningful opportunity for release,” EJI client Dennis LeBlanc’s sentence is unconstitutional.

In 2002, Dennis LeBlanc was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide offense that occurred when he was 16. Eight years later, the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida barred life-without-parole sentences for children convicted of a nonhomicide crime, holding that they must be given a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

EJI challenged Mr. LeBlanc’s sentence as unconstitutional under Graham, but the Virginia courts held that the state’s “geriatric release” program satisfied Graham‘s requirements. That program allows an incarcerated person to petition for conditional release at age 60 (after serving 10 years) or 65 (after serving 5 years). EJI appealed to the federal courts, where today the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling that “geriatric release” does not comply with Graham.

The federal court explained that Graham sets out three requirements. First, the child must have a “chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society” and that “the bad acts he committed as a teenager are not representative of his true character,” which precludes denying parole based solely on the heinousness or depravity of the crime.

Second, the opportunity for release must be “meaningful,” which means that it must be “realistic” and more than a “remote possibility.” The court explained, “Graham‘s ‘meaningful[ness]’ requirement reflects the Supreme Court’s long-standing characterization of ‘[p]arole [a]s a regular part of the rehabilitative process. Assuming good behavior, it is the normal expectation in the vast majority of cases,'” and accordingly, “it should be ‘possible to predict, at least to some extent, when parole might be granted.'”

Finally, Graham requires that a state parole or early release program must account for the lesser culpability of juvenile offenders, so that a “system that subjects juvenile offenders to more severe punishments than their adult counterparts necessarily violates Graham.”

Virginia’s geriatric parole program violates all three requirements, the Fourth Circuit held. First, it does not require the Parole Board to consider whether the juvenile offender has matured or rehabilitated. The Parole Board “can deny every juvenile offender Geriatric Release for any reason whatsoever,” and in fact, more than 95 percent of applicants are denied solely based on the nature of the cirme.

Second, contrary to Supreme Court precedent holding that parole should be the “normal expectation in the vast majority of cases,” Virginia admitted that under its geriatric program, early release is the exception, not the expectation. And because there are no standards governing the denial of geriatric release provisions, it is impossible to predict when parole might be granted.

Third, geriatric release fails to account for the lesser culpability of juvenile offenders because the Parole Board is not required to consider the prisoner’s youth at the time of his offense. Virginia’s system actually treats children worse than adults, the court found, because juvenile offenders must serve a larger part of their sentence than adults do before they become eligible to apply for geriatric release. For example, a 50-year-old sentenced to life will be eligible to apply in 10 years, but a 16-year-old has to serve 44 years before he becomes eligible.

The court held that the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision that geriatric release complies with Graham was unreasonable, and sent Mr. LeBlanc’s case back for resentencing in accordance with Graham and the Eighth Amendment.