Juvenile Law Center

January 25, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court: Prior Finding That Mandatory Life without Parole Sentences for Youth Are Unconstitutional Now Found Retroactive

posted by Juvenile Law Center

In a key win for individuals nationwide who are serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as children, the United States Supreme Court today ruled 6-3 in Montgomery v. Louisiana that their 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth, applies retroactively. Today’s decision guarantees that 69-year-old Henry Montgomery, along with as many as 2,000 others serving similar mandatory life without parole sentences, will receive new sentencing hearings or be considered for parole.

First, establishing clearly that the Court had jurisdiction to review Mr. Montgomery’s appeal, Justice Kennedy ruled that when state courts open their doors to prisoners to seek relief under federal law, the Constitution requires state courts to grant the relief that federal law requires. He wrote: “there is no grandfather clause that permits states to enforce punishments the Constitution forbids.”

Turning to the central issue of whether Miller v. Alabama constituted a substantive rule that must now be applied retroactively, Justice Kennedy held: “Like other substantive rules, Miller is retroactive because it “‘necessarily carr[ies] a significant risk that a defendant’”—here, the vast majority of juvenile offenders—“‘faces a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.’ ” Ruling Miller is no less substantive than Roper and Graham, Justice Kennedy stressed that “After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence. The only difference between Roper and Graham, on the one hand, and Miller, on the other hand, is that Miller drew a line between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption. The fact that life without parole could be a proportionate sentence for the latter kind of juvenile offender does not mean that all other children imprisoned under a disproportionate sentence have not suffered the deprivation of a substantive right.”

Rejecting Louisiana’s argument that Miller was a procedural rule, requiring simply that courts conduct a particular kind of sentencing hearing, Justice Kennedy stated: “The hearing does not replace but rather gives effect to Miller’s substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.”

After more than 50 years in prison for a crime that occurred when he was a teenager, Mr. Montgomery will now be afforded the opportunity to have a sentencing hearing in which his age, immaturity at the time of the crime, as well as his capacity for rehabilitation, can be considered. As Justice Kagan wrote in Miller, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.” None of these factors could be considered when he was originally sentenced due to the mandatory sentencing scheme in place at the time.

“Today, the Supreme Court has recognized that justice must not depend on geography or the date on a calendar. While many states have already recognized the fundamental fairness of applying Miller retroactively, Louisiana and several other states continued to violate the constitutional rights of these men and women,” says Marsha Levick, Deputy Director at Juvenile Law Center and co-counsel on the case. “Now, Mr. Montgomery, along with hundreds of others who committed crimes as youth and were sentenced prior to 2012, will have an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed.”

Mr. Montgomery has endured more than five decades in Angola prison in Louisiana where, despite the culture of violence and corruption that once characterized the prison, he has served as a role model, mentor and counselor for other prisoners. Like many of his peers on the outside, Mr. Montgomery has worked five days a week at the same job at the prison for the last 20 years. “Based on his life in prison, Mr. Montgomery has more than demonstrated his growth and maturity – a key element of the Supreme Court’s ruling banning mandatory life without parole,” Ms. Levick continued.

Mark Plaisance, who argued Mr. Montgomery’s case before the Court, similarly rejoiced in the decision. “We are pleased that the Court agreed with us - constitutional law must be applied equally. This is just the first step in a long process for Mr. Montgomery. Today’s decision simply provides an opportunity for review. It is our hope that state courts will now follow the lead of our highest court and the majority of other states around the country and give those convicted of crimes as youth a chance to become productive citizens.”

As Justice Kennedy concluded, “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.”

Tags:Juvenile and Criminal Justice|Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)

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