Calibrating the Eighth Amendment: Graham, Miller, and the Right to Mental Healthcare in Juvenile Prison


Young people locked up in juvenile prisons have an enormous need for mental healthcare, one which juvenile prisons have consistently found themselves unable to meet. As a result, many incarcerated young people end up being denied the care they deserve. Yet for years, courts have implemented a confused, haphazard doctrine to evaluate youth right to mental healthcare claims—likely because the quasi-criminal nature of the system frustrates any more straightforward application. The constitutional tests that courts apply vary widely between jurisdictions, with some courts deriving tests from the Fourteenth Amendment, others from the Eighth, and many fashioning a standard somewhere in between. This has not only led to unpredictability between cases, but also led courts to express a troubling indifference to the unique needs and vulnerabilities of mentally ill youth.

Recent developments in the Eighth Amendment’s youth sentencing doctrine have opened the door to reconsidering how courts evaluate these claims. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama emphasize the important differences between youth defendants and adults. Those differences do not disappear once the judge’s gavel falls. This Comment argues that courts should, at the very least, apply a more protective Eighth Amendment test to the right to mental healthcare claims of incarcerated youth, a test informed by the Court’s decisions in Graham and Miller. Doing so would not only increase doctrinal consistency; it would also take one small step toward addressing the urgent need for mental healthcare in modern juvenile prisons.

This Comment proposes a model for one such youth-informed test. The test acknowledges the real kinship between youth and adult prisons in its application of the Eighth Amendment to youth claims. Yet the test’s modified, objective standard enables courts to more clearly focus on the unique problems that such claims raise. Hopefully, in doing so, youth prisoners will finally have the means to argue for a level of mental healthcare that may begin to match their need.

About the Author

Law Clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; J.D. 2015, UCLA School of Law, Epstein Public Interest Law & Policy Program

By uclalaw