Juveniles Sentenced to Life-Without-Parole have a Newfound Hope

By Lauren Paglini

 

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles.[1] The Court adopted the rationale from recent precedent—Roper and Graham—furthering the premise that children are different. The Court in Miller recognized that juveniles must not necessarily receive the same punishments as adults who committed the same kind of crimes. The Court, however, did not address whether its ruling would be applied retroactively to prior cases; instead, the Court only applied its ruling to current sentences that were not yet final. On January 25, 2016, the Supreme Court in Montgomery v. Louisiana gave retroactive effect to Miller and offered a newfound hope for aging prisoners, convicted as juveniles, across the nation who are serving life terms.

 

The question before the Court in Montgomery v. Louisiana was whether the Miller ruling applied to past offenders like Montgomery who was convicted in 1963 of killing a sheriff in Louisiana at the age of 17. The Court in a 6-3 decision ruled that no juvenile who commits murder, or another serious crime, can be sentenced to life-without-parole unless the youth is “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible” as to lack any capacity for reform.

 

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion in Montgomery, reiterates the rationale expressed in Miller that juvenile offenders are constitutionally different; that juveniles must be given a sentencing evaluation that takes into account their youth and potential for rehabilitation as they age and mature. Justice Kennedy explained that “prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”[2]

 

The Montgomery decision does not completely foreclose judges from sentencing juveniles to life-without-parole; but rather, it reserves such a sentence for rare instances of only the most heinous crimes. Justice Kennedy explained that “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” forbid mandatory sentences and that this harsh possibility should be uncommon.[3] This ruling ultimately gives inmates who were convicted as juveniles and sentenced to life without parole a chance to re-open their sentence and attempt to show that they are not beyond rehabilitation.[4] The Court explained “the opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”[5]

 

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing dissent accusing the Court of going beyond the Miller v. Alabama decision and rewriting it in a way that imposes a heavy burden on the states. Justice Scalia ridiculed the regime by calling it “practically impossible.”  According to Justice Kennedy, however, the new rule does not pose “an onerous burden on the state” because prisoners who do not meet parole standards will continue to serve their life term.[6]

 

From Roper to Miller, and now to Montgomery, the Supreme Court has continuously stepped in the right direction for juveniles; in the direction towards humanity, recognizing that children are different.  The Montgomery v. Louisiana opinion placed faith in our criminal justice system’s rehabilitation efforts by offering offenders a chance to prove they are reformed.

 

At the age of 69, Montgomery has spent the majority of his life in prison under a sentence now deemed unconstitutional.[7] Montgomery now claims that his rehabilitation in prison makes him eligible for parole. The Court did not address Montgomery’s claim of release; instead, it left it up to the state court to determine whether to impose a new sentence, release him on parole, or release Montgomery entirely. Although Montgomery is not guaranteed a new sentence or even release, he, along with thousands of other inmates, is guaranteed at least a hearing that could potentially result in parole or release.

 

 

[1] See Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. __ (2012).

[2] See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. ___ (2016).

[3] Id.

[4] See generally Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Further limit on life sentences for youthful criminals, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 25, 2016, 12:26 PM).

[5] See Montgomery, 577 U.S. ___.

[6] Id.

[7] See Denniston, supra note 4.