Graham v. Florida was a watershed decision, not least because of the centrality of the so-called “rehabilitativeideal” to its holding that life in prison for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes was cruel and unusual. The Court’s emphasis on rehabilitation was surprising both in terms of the Court’s previous decisions on punishment, in which rehabilitation was barely included as a “purpose of punishment,” but also in terms of the history of academic and legislative skepticism if not hostility toward the idea of rehabilitation (which includes two recently decided sentencing cases, Tapia and Pepper). Courts and commentators have struggled to make sense of both the meaning and the scope of Graham’s rehabilitative holding. Their struggle is one about defining how (and whether) rehabilitation should play any substantial role in sentencing.
My essay places Graham in the context of the recent history of rehabilitation, and views its attempt to “rehabilitate” rehabilitation in light of that history. The rehabilitative ideal encompasses not just one model, but three: the mostly discredited model of rehabilitation as treatment, a more modest model of rehabilitation as training, and an older model of rehabilitation as reform. Both the language and the result of Graham show it to be squarely in the tradition of the third model, where rehabilitation is not something the state provides, but something the offender is supposed to undergo, through a process of reflection, remorse, and atonement. Rehabilitation as reform is notable because it is compatible with a suspicion that prison in general is a bad place for rehabilitation and that it is unlikely that the state can do anything to positively aid the offender in reforming. At best, the state must get out of the way. Whether we want to extend Graham or reject it depends on whether we find its ideal of rehabilitation as reform appealing.
Flanders, Chad, The Supreme Court and the Rehabilitative Ideal (2014).